Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D, a clinical professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso, has been involved in a humanitarian mission for almost two years to provide access to clean, readily available water in Po Ploom, Haiti.
Getting clean water is a constant problem for the 500 residents of Po Ploom, an isolated community situated on a strip of grassland extending along the eastern border with the Dominican Republic.
Fewer than half of Haitians in rural areas such as Po Ploom have access to clean water and satisfactory sanitation, putting them at risk for waterborne illnesses.
In 2016, a private, anonymous donor concerned about Po Ploom’s clean water problem reached out to New Vision Baptist Church in Tennessee to find a solution. As an expert in water treatment technologies research, Santiago, an educator for 25 years, was approached to design a water filtration system in Haiti.
UTEP students in the civil engineering senior design course created a solar-powered water purification system for Po Ploom that would be simple to maintain and easy to work.
Santiago and a team of volunteers from UTEP, Solar Smart Living and Industrial Water Services (IWS) in El Paso went to Haiti in April 2018 to set up the system.
Like a majority of communities in Haiti’s countryside, Po Ploom does not have electricity. Its only water source is Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti.
Known in the neighborhood as Étang Saumâtre, or “brackish pond” in English, the western part of Lake Azuéi has brackish water, which is not as salty as seawater but saltier than fresh water. On the eastern side of the lake, residents have access to fresh drinking water, which they also use for washing and bathing. Those who can pay for it buy powder bleach to sanitize the water before consuming it.
In 2016 Santiago traveled to Haiti for the first time to assess the requirements of the community.
A few residents travel two hours to the Dominican Republic or across the lake to buy pouches or gallons of drinking water. But for most of Po Ploom’s families who earn $20 a month selling charcoal, store-bought water is an extravagance they cannot afford.
Six UTEP engineering students adapted a design proposed by IWS and Solar Smart Living—two local partner companies that specialize in solar power and reverse osmosis.
The students developed a unique and innovative system that integrated reverse osmosis desalination and solar energy to eliminate contaminants from the water. They first planned to pump the water from Lake Azuéi, but water samples revealed that the lake’s seawater would be too hard to clean. As an alternative, Santiago contracted a well driller from the Dominican Republic to come to Po Ploom to dig a well measuring 200 feet deep.
Once in the purification system, the water is sanitized by reverse osmosis—a process that eliminates inorganic solids, such as salts from water by forcing the water under pressure through a semi-permeable membrane. The clean water is then pumped into a storage tank where Po Ploom’s residents can stock up their plastic containers and pitchers during the day.
Since there is no electricity at the site, the system is run by 24 industrial-size batteries that are charged by 42 solar panels.
A week after the system began functioning on April 6th, 2018, 10,000 gallons of water had been generated.
Santiago, a licensed Professional Environmental Engineer in Texas, New Mexico and Puerto Rico, has been involved in water quality projects in the United States, Juárez (Mexico), and Puerto Rico.