In Search of a Clean Water Revolution for the Philippines

In the typhoon-ravaged town of Tolosa, young entrepreneurs are working on a big problem.

Two years after Typhoon Haiyan devastated areas across the Philippines, a new project—spearheaded by a group of MBA students from Singapore—is set to bring a clean and centralized water supply to one of the country’s worst-affected areas by using two natural resources: sun and sand.

Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones recorded in modern history, hit the Philippines in November 2013. It claimed more than 6,000 lives and damaged homes, schools, health centers, and other vital infrastructure.

In Tolosa, a small municipality about 10 miles south of the typhoon-ravaged city of Tacloban, water and power systems have remained severely damaged. But an initiative called Tolosa Water Systems may restore access to safe water for the local population.

Working across 12 barangays (small wards or villages of 150 to 300 households), Tolosa Water Systems will install seven biosand filtration units and five solar-powered water pumps, taking advantage of the area’s average 11 hours of sunshine per day throughout the year. The installations will remove pathogens and suspended solids from local drinking water, as well as reduce discoloration, odor, and any unpleasant taste.

In biosand units, water travels through layers of sand and gravel, which remove contaminants; a film on top of the sand, or “biological layer,” contains micro-organisms that consume pathogens. Solar-powered pumps receive energy from solar panels to pump and clean well water.

The new system could revolutionize everyday life in Tolosa, where water is currently collected from shallow wells and transported by hand. This leaves residents vulnerable to waterborne diseases such as those caused by coliform bacteria, which often also indicate the presence of more dangerous viruses and parasites.

“Essentially, the people in these communities do not have adequate access to clean water and basic sanitation. There is no company there to clean and distribute water, and no centralized and communal deep well,” says Julian Ragragio, founder of Tolosa Water Systems and an MBA student at the National University of Singapore. “We are looking to provide a complete water distribution system, including an overhead tank and individual taps and pipes that run to each household.”

Ragragio and his three co-entrepreneurs started the project from their university’s Social Impact Club. The MBA students will now be working to execute it with a nonprofit in the Philippines, SIBAT, which specializes in applying technologies for socioeconomic development in the country’s poorest communities.

Each of the 12 barangays in Tolosa requires between 6,000 and 8,000 gallons of water each day, and the new systems will produce between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons daily. The cost of each system is considerable, ranging from 716,000 to 900,000 Philippine pesos (approximately $15,000 to $20,000). But crucially, neither the solar nor biosand method has substantial recurring costs once installed.

Earlier this year, the energy company Total awarded the project a grant of $44,000, which has helped fund the initial implementation. (Total is the world’s fourth-largest oil and gas producer and second-largest producer of solar energy.) Muriel Warren, the head of projects and partnerships at Total, described the students’ proposal as “technically sound and well-developed,” and said they showed “a high level of motivation and determination.”

After they complete the project in Tolosa—by the end of 2016, they hope—the students plan to scale up their work to other areas in the Philippines. They are currently searching for additional funders and talking to other local nonprofits. “What we are offering is a very simple solution to a significant problem for local communities,” Ragragio says. “And access to safe water is crucial for developing countries to grow and succeed.”

Originally published by The Atlantic / CityLab. Image above courtesy of Tolosa Water Systems.