One Month In – Experiences on the Field

As I round out my first month here in India, I am starting to reflect on everything that I have and have not been able to accomplish so far. More than anything, I am eager to see the fruits of my labor in the work I am doing with Profugo, from engineering projects to English and more. One thing that has been strikingly clear from these few short weeks is that absolutely nothing ever goes according to plan. There are always cultural and technological impediments to production. This fundamental and unavoidable truth is why development work is so fun to me: it is both challenging and rewarding in that every experience is an opportunity to grow. Nevertheless, here is an update:

Biogas:

One of my tasks over the past month has been to optimize the output efficiency of a portable anaerobic digester tank for home use. What this basically means is organic waste, excrement, kitchen waste, and the like, when decomposed in the absence of oxygen, produces methane gas. This gas, in turn, can be harnessed to heat stoves for cooking food, boiling water, etc. What is nice is that hypothetically, this gas is free, insofar as it is utilizing what would otherwise be thrown out as waste. The common ingredients that are being used in homes that currently have these systems are cow dung and vegetable waste.

In determining ways to improve the efficiency of such systems, a number of options arise. Firstly, using human waste in addition to the aforementioned products would help in producing more gas over the long term. However, one of the first objections I found is the cultural belief that if human waste is burned, that gas will make food and water smell bad when it is cooked using that flame. On the other hand, because the cow is considered sacred, a similar consequence does not apply when cow dung is used to prepare foods (anyone notice how strange this sounds?). In any case, I proceeded to think that perhaps there are certain things that should and should not be added to create more gas. Further research on this idea presented that cellulosic and fibrous plant material like woods, tougher plant material, and so on, actually hinders gas production because of how difficult it is for bacteria to break down.

On the other hand, however, research supported that adding easy to digest plants like grasses and small shrubbery not only aids gas production but is actually more efficient in doing so than cow dung or other excrement materials. Surprised, I offered this discovery as a possible remedy, only to find that again, a cultural preference to purchase grasses only to feed cows made it foolish to add grass to the digester. Everything that is produced from the cow is natural and appropriate to be used. The last course of action I tried was to measure and adjust the internal temperature, pH, and moisture of the system. Much like when one makes bread, the dough, when yeast is added, must be kept in a warm and moist environment to rise as much as possible, gas production works best under optimal levels of temperature, moisture, and pH so bacteria can happily break down the digester’s ingredients. Currently, I am in the process of determining appropriate instrumentation to begin measuring this data.

Water Resources:

On the water resources end, no one would disagree that flooding is a major issue in Kerala. After all, the hundred-year flood just two months of go gives credence to the theory that flooding is a problem. That, however, is the opposite of the real long-term issue in the region. Caused by a lack of rain in the summer months, drought is actually the principle culprit of distress and angst in the region.

The function of this project is to record water level data with a series of data loggers located in wells throughout the area of Prashanthagiri and Valad. By measuring water levels, the hope is to a more complete picture and a better understanding of the region’s water level and hydrology. In addition to pulling the data loggers from very obscure and hard to reach wells, I am tasked with uploading the data and interpreting the results. What I can say, from initial data obtained, is that weird things are happening in the area. Right after a bump in the chart labeled water depth and time which can only be assumed as the flood, the water level drops exponentially. This is abnormal and suggests a point of leakage, per se, where the water is leaving the water table faster.

This project was started by Villanova University students who have specific equipment and data to continue with the analysis to read out other data loggers that were installed about a year ago. When they come over winter break, then I will be able to help continue the research. Until then, patience is a virtue.

Rainwater Harvesting:

The idea is simple: install rain gutters and piping to direct roof rainwater runoff into wells so that in the summer months when the droughts start there will be more water in the wells. This project has two forms, either direct well recharge, what was just described, or piping into a water tank that would keep the water in a long-term location, separate from fluctuating water table levels. The project is a great initiative. The problem, however, is the initial capital cost that is required to purchase all the necessary materials. Many families, especially after the flood, have lost money and cannot afford the endeavor at this time.

My job is to seek out those families that might still be interested, take measurements of their homes and well distances, and then design a custom system for each home. Prices will vary, however, the goal is to allow for more water so the drought does not cause so much damage to crop output in the summer months. The interesting thing about this project is that each house is different, completely different. Very much unlike my neighborhood, where each neighbor’s house is a carbon copy design, the houses here have character and a very Eastern vibe.

Currently, I have acquired dimensions and am working through the design of each water system, estimating costs through a series of local contractors. What excites me with this project is that this is something that can be completed by the time I leave. A tangible result produced through work and collaboration, this project will help families find water for years to come.

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