2016 Excellence in Environmental Engineering and Science™ Awards Competition Winner

E3S Superior Achievement Award

Superior Achievement in Environmental Engineering and Science

Category Entered: University Research

Improved Water Quality for Ixcan Guatemala

Entrant: Daniel B. Oerther, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE
Engineers in Charge: Daniel B. Oerther, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE
Location: La Antigua, Guatemala
Media Contact: Daniel B. Oerther, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE


Entrant Profile

Daniel B. Oerther is the John A. and Susan Mathes Chair of Environmental Health Engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, MO and a Science Advisor to Secretary Kerry's Office of Global Food Security at the United States Department of State.

Dan earned his doctorate in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign. He is a licensed PE in the State of Ohio, and he is Board Certified by the AAEES.

From 2000 through 2009, Dr. Oerther was on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati where he was most recently Professor and Head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Dan received the 2009 Excellence in Environmental Engineering University Research Honor Award from AAEES for the project entitled, "Improved Water Quality in Northwest Tanzania."

He received the Excellence in Environmental Engineering Education (E4) Award from AAEES in 2014.

He has served as Treasurer of AAEES since 2013, and in 2013 Dan established the AAEES Student Team Award recognizing exceptional projects in the field of Environmental Engineering completed by student chapters of Engineers Without Borders.

In 2007, Dr. Oerther began working with Mr. Gerber Perez – a native of Guatemala and a Christian missionary to non-Spanish speaking internally displaced peoples – who operates the organization Healthy Communities in partnership with Hechos 2:8 and Mission Impact.

Dr. Oerther and his graduate student, Mr. Dan Divelbiss, provided engineering expertise in the assessment, design, and implementation of a comprehensive water quality program for more than 75,000 individuals in Ixcan Guatemala.

To continue this work after his relocation from Cincinnati to Missouri, Dr. Oerther recruited an additional graduate student, Mr. Lee Voth-Gaeddert to provide additional engineering expertise.

The initial phase of this project, constructing and assessing point of use water treatment systems throughout Ixcan Guatemala, was completed in the summer of 2015.

The next phase of this project will explore the links among: a) water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH); b) food and nutrition security; and c) cultural behaviors; to identify and (hopefully) correct the problem of severe stunting that is a hallmark of the population of Ixcan Guatemala.

Portions of this research have been published in the 2011 MS Thesis of Mr. Divelbiss, a 2013 ES&T article, the 2014 MS Thesis of Mr. Voth-Gaeddert, and a 2015 WS&T article.

Project Description

Every day, around the world more than 5,000 children under the age of five die from preventable waterborne infectious disease. In Central America, regular civil unrest and guerilla warfare, a lack of local economic opportunity, and transplanted indigenous refugees with incompatible languages and diverse cultural backgrounds all contribute to a challenging environment where access to basic sanitation and potable water continues to be difficult. In 2005, Rodel Perez, a Guatemalan pastor recognized the need to expand his ministry to include a more holistic approach to meet the spiritual, educational, and physical needs of the villagers he served. The local Guatemalan health department informed Rodel that diarrhea morbidity and mortality was far higher in the Ixcan region of Guatemala as compared to the rest of the country and placed the Ixcan region on a similar health level as Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Swaziland.

Rodel initially focused exclusively upon the use of dry composting latrines, but in 2007 Rodel and his son, Gerber Garcia Perez (the current owner of the project), recruited Dr. Daniel Oerther to become involved in solving this complex challenge of environmental engineering. Leveraging ongoing work where Oerther and partners were addressing both source water protection and potable water production for villages in Sub-Saharan East Africa, Dr. Oerther recruited Mr. Dan Divelbiss as a graduate student to conduct an extensive sanitary survey in Ixcan. Using a field lab and collaborating with the local health department, Divelbiss performed measurements of water quality and quantity, and evaluated the feasibility of using mixture of technologies to protect water sources (ie dry composting latrines) and to produce potable water (ie filtration, coagulation, and disinfection).

This initial sanitary survey confirmed that many villagers consume untreated surface water or shallow well water heavily polluted with human and animal feces. Additionally, sporadic household treatment with chlorine and boiling appeared to result in increases in diarrheal illness when treatment was temporarily discontinued due to a lack of financial resources. Furthermore, interviews revealed that while community residents were generally aware of the risks of acquiring illness from water, community members lacked the technical knowledge to solve their own problem.

Together, Divelbiss and Oerther collaborated with the Perez family and others to evaluate the utility of technology transfer from East Africa to Guatemala. The villagers specified the need for an intervention that was effective, had a long useful life, and was inexpensive. The Perez family and their staff specified a minimal requirement for capital from abroad, the utilization of local materials and labor, and a technology that required an investment of both monetary capital and sweat equity on the part of villagers (ie to provide a 'hand up' rather than a 'hand out' solution). An additional design consideration included the ease of integration into existing daily routines. The biosand filter originally described by the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) appeared to be most applicable to the specific conditions in Ixcan.

In 2008, a successful pilot project in the community of Santa Catarina El Rosario confirmed that the CAWST filter was the technology of choice. The team from the University provided a filter mold as well as oversight of construction. Local villagers contributed sweat equity and one bag of cement per household who wished to participate in the pilot. Each household was also required to attend a daylong training workshop on filter operation and maintenance. Additional filters were constructed in the local village elementary school, and science lessons were presented in the classrooms to explain germ theory and the importance of potable drinking water. This pilot project was met with much enthusiasm, and neighboring villages made requests for similar pilot projects.

Since 2009, more than 3,500 point of use CAWST slow sand biofilters have been constructed in schools and individual homes by the villagers without any further capital investment from the USA. Filter technicians – trained by the team from the USA – collaborate with local water committees to operate cottage industries and are receiving modest incomes paid by villagers for the construction and maintenance of filters. With typical household sizes of five to ten individuals (i.e., 7 * 3,350), and schools with one hundred children (i.e., 100 * 150), it is estimated that nearly half of the more than 70,000 villagers in the region now consume treated water.

To document the effectiveness of the technology intervention, a water quality monitoring laboratory was established in facilities belonging to the Perez family with financial support from the National Science Foundation. Throughout 2009, collaboration with the local health department was used to collect coliform counts as well as health survey information including incidence of diarrhea and perceptions of the effectiveness of the CAWST filters. In 2010, these preliminary survey results were used to develop a comprehensive Structural Equation Model (SEM) as an innovative tool to quantitatively evaluate the effectiveness of the engineering intervention.

Surveys of more than 500 homes were performed by local health personnel, and the results of these surveys were integrated into the innovative SEM. While SEM has been used routinely in the social sciences and in fields such as econometrics, the research studies performed by Oerther and his students represent one of the first applications of SEM in the field of environmental engineering to evaluate interventions to improve water quality. SEM offers the user the ability to impute relationships among unobserved constructs (known as latent variables) and observable variables.

When he moved from the University of Cincinnati to the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Oerther recruited Mr. Lee Voth-Gaeddert as an additional graduate student to work as part of this team. Mr. Voth-Gaeddert has continued to verify the innovative SEM approach by evaluating similar CAWST filters in use by a Christian missionary group operating near Santarem, Brazil. By evaluating the SEM developed for Guatemala with a secondary data set collected for Brazil, the team has been able to demonstrate the high utility of the approach for assessing the effectiveness of interventions (ie CAWST filters) to reduce disease conditions (ie diarrhea).

In the summer of 2015, the work to place filters in homes in the Ixcan region of Guatemala was considered 'complete,' and the team has transitioned to expand the utility of SEM as a tool to evaluate the effectiveness of additional interventions to reduce more complex diseases. Currently, the team is exploring the relationship among CAWST filters and the presence of fungal mycotoxin in corn in Guatemala with the disease state of severe stunting (ie below average height for age) among the population of Guatemala.


Click images to enlarge in separate window.

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Map of Guatemala with Ixcan in detail

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Villagers in Santa Catarina interviewed by the assessment team in 2007.

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Construction of pilot project filters in Santa Catarina in 2008.

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Community presentation in San Lucas.

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School presentation in Kaibil Balam.

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Filter construction site in La Florida.

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Every household contributed sweat equity in the construction of their filter.

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Filter construction site in La Nueva Esperanza.

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Transporting filters from the construction sites to individual households.

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A CAWST slow sand biofilter installed in a villager's home.

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Divelbiss in the field lab testing water quality.

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Typical filter for coliforms.


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