Colombia Water Works Turning Trash into Cisterns

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Ekomuro was awarded a top prize at last month’s World Water Forum in Korea, for their cistern solution using PET bottles

For more than a decade, Cecilia Uribe has relied on a higher power to provide a basic utility: water. In her sprawling neighborhood on the outskirts of Colombia’s capital, municipal water only ran twice a month, she explained, “so I would just wait for my God to make it rain.”

Capturing and storing that scarce resource, however, required more earthly intervention. For the past six years, Ricardo Alba has focused his attention on that simple but vital question: how to harness the rain in a country where more than three million people don’t have access to running water.

His solution — both simple and cheap — has been catching global attention. Alba, 56, developed a system for interconnecting discarded three-liter plastic bottles. The standard array, or Ekomuro H2O+, as he calls it, consists of blocks of nine bottles stacked six high. Attached to a gutter or downspout, the homemade cistern can hold 43 gallons of rainwater that’s available through a spigot at the bottom of the tower.

It costs less than $50 to build — even if people pay a premium for the bottles, he said. And it’s infinitely expandable. He’s created an Ekomuro for a school out of 324 bottles.

The heart of the system is an ingenious way of connecting the recipients. Alba uses a household iron to affix bottle tops back-to-back. After he bores a hole through them, he can screw a bottle on either end, creating six-liter reservoir. Each of those mini-cisterns is attached to a pair above it through food-grade silicone tubing.

“The great thing about using PET bottles is they’re standard almost anywhere in the world,” Alba said. “And we’re turning trash into something useful.”

The ubiquity of plastic bottles has given the Colombian system an international cache. Ekomuros are currently being built in Guatemala and Mexico, and Alba has received queries from Nepal, where the earthquake-damaged infrastructure has made water storage a necessity. When Alba’s display model was recently confiscated at an airport on his way to a conference in Asia, he simply made a new one once he landed.

His use of household garbage is winning accolades. Ekomuro was awarded a top prize at last month’s World Water Forum in Korea, was a finalist in the 2013 Technology and Innovation Competition of the Americas, and was a regional finalist in the 2012 Google Science Fair.

But the system got its start in the dusty hillside community on the periphery of the capital called Altos de Cazucá, which is dominated by tin and wood shacks.

Source: Miami Herald

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