TOPICS > World > Social Entrepreneurship

Students Use Invention to Help Haitians Get Clean Water

BY Larisa Epatko  February 28, 2011 at 12:15 PM EST

Water purification system bound for Haiti. Photo courtesy of Gulliver Preparatory School

When Kyle Kurzner was a high school student at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, a speaker visited his class to describe Haiti’s desperate conditions after a series of hurricanes and tropical storms hit the impoverished Caribbean nation in 2008.

The students rallied to contribute food, diapers and other supplies, but they wondered what else they could do. “We could give food and bottled water, but we wanted to give something special,” Kurzner said.

Sherman Humphrey, southeast regional manager of child sponsorship for Friends of the Orphans in Miami, told them the places in Haiti where his group operated needed clean drinking water.

On his wish list was a water filtration device that could be used as an emergency water source. It should be portable, run off renewable energy and be constructed of materials that wouldn’t need to be constantly replaced.

So the students formed a research and design team and got to work. They built a solar-powered filtration device using steel parts coated to prevent rot and rust. A barrel split in two by a piece of plexiglass contains bio-balls to remove large particles like leaves, a string filter for removing sand and an ultraviolet bulb that destroys viruses and bacteria.

“We kept it really low-maintenance as far as cost because they really don’t have many resources there,” said Kurzner.

Most Haitians have access to water through a city-provided cistern system that sells water by the bucket for 5 to 10 cents — a hefty sum for a Haitian who lives on less than $1 a day, said Humphrey. Another option — small sand filters — need to be cleaned on a weekly basis, he added.

The students’ device was sent to Haiti around the first of the year and is operating at a facility for 450 orphaned and abandoned children in the town of Kenscoff, said Humphrey.

“My guess is it would have cost us $5,000 to $7,000 to buy something like it,” he said.

About a month ago, the ultraviolet light bulb used to kill off bacteria in the tank burned out, and the six team members — now college students — brainstormed solutions. A new bulb was sent and installed last week.

According to Humphrey, his organization has plans to develop similar products and improve the current device to make it lighter and more mobile. “Eventually, we would like to set one up at each of our community schools so these areas wouldn’t be reliant on the city’s cistern water,” he said.

Kurzner, who’s now a mechanical engineering student at the University of Central Florida, said the project was a learning experience. “I think we came up with a great temporary solution,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have long-term communication with them because Haiti is not doing well in any way, shape or form.”