What Does NASA Have to Do with Clean Water in Rwanda? (Interview)
Evan Thomas has worked with Engineers Without Borders around the world and has a career with NASA developing life support systems for people in space. He has also founded Manna Energy, a for-profit company that aims to bring clean water to people in Rwanda. Not just any clean water, though—the idea is to replace environmentally-destructive firewood, the common source of fuel for boiling water, with the "Bring Your Own Water," or BYOW, water filtration system that the company has developed. It is a gravity-fed gravel filter that uses solar power for disinfection. The system treats water collected by local residents from any contaminated or suspect source and filters at a rate of about 10 liters per minute, providing up to 5,000 liters of treated water per day.
This is an important tool in a country that lacks clean water supplies in many areas, and where people either spend a disproportionate amount of their time and money boiling water so it is clean enough to drink—or they don't, often because they lack money for firewood, and become vulnerable to all kinds of water-borne diseases. Evan talked with me from Houston a couple weeks after he spoke in Boulder about the work that Manna Energy has been doing in Rwanda.
Planet Green: Can you explain how Manna is using carbon credits to help implement water treatment systems in Rwanda?
Evan Thomas: We're trying to open up the carbon credit market to countries in the developing world. Essentially, the clean development mechanism at the UN was never set up to be flexible and [able to work in] the least-developed countries. It was set up for big coal plants and other large-scale electricity generation. It's been a great thing for India, China, Brazil—places that are developing rapidly. But there are places in Africa that are not engaging in that level of development, basically because of poverty. But the need is still there—for all the same reasons: clean energy, jobs, sanitation, lighting, computers, power. Things are not great when you have dirty water, and energy can address that.
We are the first organization approved for the use of firewood for carbon credits.
PG: And your model allows for carbon credits for actual consumption of firewood as well as potential demand, like in homes that cannot afford the supplies even if they should be boiling their water for sanitation purposes?
ET: Actually, the UN just told us they're not going to accept credits for the potential reduction of firewood use, we can only claim credits for actual firewood use. That reduced the revenue potential.
They're not recognizing the demand that is there but not met because of poverty. There is a voluntary carbon credit market, and that system does recognize the demand. Under that system, we would be able to get credit for the potential, and it's disappointing that the voluntary mechanism is more progressive than the UN system.
PG: Are you considering switching?
ET: We're going to stay with the UN. Our partners have invested a lot of resources within the UN system, and we have decided to go forward and take the reductions. We're going to deliver water to the people we've promised to deliver water to.
PG How many sites do you have?
ET: We have four operating sites in Rwanda and five additional ones planned for the immediate future. Our vision is to roll out the technology for all secondary schools—that'd be over 30,000 people.
PG: You talk a lot about sustainability and accountability, and about Manna's unique approach to community development. Can you describe how you increase the level of accountability?
ET: If we were a traditional model of community development, we would have no choice but to train local community members. Instead, we work with local councils, schools, clinics, vocational schools, and the national government. The national government has agreed to take responsibility of the system after 10 years.
What stands us apart is that we have full time staff. We generate revenue from these systems to pay for them long term. We give ourselves a decade to turn the systems over to local management, not just a few months or weeks. I'm not saying we'll turn it over on day one of year 11—I'm just saying we have 10 years. We work with local communities and involve them in deployment, but we don't kid ourselves that we can turn someone into a technician overnight without paying them for it.
We're not just looking for the one guy in the community who can keep it going.
There's a role for nonprofit, but there's also a role for business. They're not mutually exclusive. Sustainability is tied to economics. You can make the most sustainable system in the world, but if no one's responsible or accountable for it, it won't be reliable or sustainable.
When a system fails, the immediate cause might be a faulty valve, etc., but the ultimate cause is the lack of capacity of these communities to take these on. The entire purpose of forming Manna is that at the end of the day, somebody needs to have a job whose responsibility it is to take care of these systems.
Because of that, we have accountability. With someone responsible for making sure the systems are working, I have a feeling they'll work more reliably for a longer period of time.
PG: How does your work with NASA tie into this project?
I am a civil servant. I work with life support systems at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I care about life support systems for people in space, and those skills transfer to helping people living in other difficult environments. We have a full time staff at Manna—I work at NASA during the day, and I work on Manna nights and weekends.
PG: Do you want others to replicate your design elsewhere, or are you trying to keep it a proprietary model?
ET: We've developed these water treatment systems and we can run the staff and maintain them—but we can have a greater impact by demonstrating this and have other organizations demonstrating it as well.
We are working with another company now to put systems in another sub-Saharan African country, and helping them to adopt a carbon finance model.
There shouldn't be a decision between choosing a profession and doing good. We can have social enterprises that don't force people to make that choice—and can be compensated appropriately.