Clean water initiative in Peru led by former IDRC awardee

July 03, 2014
Eric Smith
Where are they now?
For many communities in the developing world, access to clean water in rural and peri-urban areas remains a pressing problem. In Peru, many sources of water are contaminated with harmful pathogens, heavy metals, and other dissolved compounds. As a result, thousands of people lack access to safe water and suffer from water-borne diseases.

Henry Juarez is the executive director of AguaSAN Perú, a non-profit that researches and implements approaches to water security. His research on water contamination in Lima was supported by an IDRC graduate research award. Juarez's findings that Lima's main water supply was heavily contaminated led him to found AguaSAN Perú and launch the Clean Water for Peru Initiative. His original research found that Lima’s major source of water, the Rimac River, is highly contaminated with heavy metals in its upper and middle regions while the lower section of the river is contaminated with intestinal bacterial that pose a serious health threat.

"In my initial research, I found that the Rimac River, which is the most important source of potable water for the capital, Lima, is highly contaminated with both heavy metals and intestinal bacterial, both of which pose a serious threat to health," says Juarez.

Canadian-made technology may be solution

After his initial research, Juarez began looking for an appropriate technology to offer a simple, low-cost way of improving water quality in Peru. This search led him to the biosand filter, a Canadian-made technology that improves on the design of traditional sand filters. Early support from IDRC helped launch the device, which has improved the lives of countless people by freeing them from the constant threat of gastrointestinal disease. Juarez began testing the feasibility of using the filter to reduce pathogens in Lima's drinking water. 

The filter produced positive results and Juarez sought out additional funding to scale-up what became AguaSAN Perú. Rotary International, the Government of Peru, and private companies provided seed funding. In partnership with local and international NGOs, AguaSAN now oversees the making of and funding for filters, and provides training for health workers and local communities.

AguaSAN is also working closely with researchers in Canada. In collaboration with the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) and Mount Royal University, AguaSAN researchers recently evaluated their training and education programs in Peru. The evaluation found that intervening to treat and maintain the quality of water at the household level is one of the most promising and cost-effective approaches to water security. By promoting access and training on clean water, sanitation, wastewater treatment, and good hygiene practices, AguaSAN supports efforts on equity, environmental conservation, and poverty reduction. So far, the Clean Water for Peru Initiative has helped more than 12,000 Lima residents access safe water.

Henry Juarez collecting water samples in Lima, PeruHowever, an important problem still remains.

"Our next challenge is to find a way to remove heavy metals from drinking water," says Juarez. "These pollutants are present in the water, but their effect on the local population's health are less obvious to the community and the authorities." 

 
Heavy metals typically enter rivers from mining pollution. While the biosand filters are able to remove bacteria from drinking water, they are still unable to remove heavy metals.
 
Adaptation and scaling-up

To address this problem, Juarez is working to adapt biosand filters to remove heavy metals from drinking water. Initial results are promising, indicating this innovative research may soon provide a low-cost, low-maintenance, and effective solution to heavy metal contamination. By providing scientific evidence of the removal of heavy metals using a biofilter, Juarez aims to restore access to clean water to not just Peruvians, but to communities around the world.

To learn more about AguaSAN, visit their website or Facebook page

Watch a short video on AguaSAN’s Simple Innovations for Water Treatment (available only in Spanish)

Read more about IDRC's support of biosand filters 

Find out more about IDRC’s graduate awards on the Fellowships and Awards and Program page.

This article is part of the series Where are they now? which highlights the work of former IDRC award recipients:

Eric Smith is an IDRC Professional Development Award recipient and writer based in Ottawa.