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Mission Accomplished: UTEP Helps Haitians Access Clean Water

Last Updated on July 23, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published July 23, 2018

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

Nearly two years after embarking on a humanitarian mission to provide access to clean, readily available water in Po Ploom, Haiti, Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., raised a cup of fresh drinking water to toast the community’s residents.

“Salud!,” an exhausted but elated Santiago said before talking the first sip from Po Ploom’s new potable water supply system. 

Santiago, a clinical professor of civil engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso, offered a sip to the other volunteers, who encouraged Po Ploom’s residents to join their mini celebration. Soon they were swarmed by excited children who eagerly reached out their hands for cups of clean water. 

“Seeing Dr. Santiago drink that first cup of water was a very important moment,” recalled Daniel Castillo, a UTEP senior civil engineering student who traveled with Santiago to Haiti. “Some of the residents looked surprised that we were giving them clean water. They were still skeptical until they saw more of us drink water and then everybody wanted some.” 

Access to clean water is a constant struggle for the 500 residents of Po Ploom, an isolated community located on a strip of grassland stretching along the eastern border with the Dominican Republic. 

Fewer than half of Haitians in rural areas such as Po Ploom have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, putting them at risk for waterborne diseases. 

“A Christian organization called the Chadasha Foundation was sending doctors to Po Ploom very often, and they found that most of the illnesses were caused by contaminated water people were drinking,” Santiago explained. “So rather than send doctors, why not send someone to fix the water?”  

In 2016, Po Ploom’s clean water problem attracted a private, anonymous donor who reached out to New Vision Baptist Church in Tennessee to find a solution. 

As a leader in water treatment technologies research, UTEP offered an answer to their prayers. 

UTEP students in the civil engineering senior design course developed a solar-powered water purification system for Po Ploom that would be easy to operate and simple to maintain. 

Santiago and a group of volunteers from UTEP, Solar Smart Living and Industrial Water Services (IWS) in El Paso traveled to Haiti in April 2018 to install the system.

New Vision Pastor Daniel Koon, the on-site missionary, said it was a joy to see the church and UTEP keep a promise to the people of Po Ploom. 

“After waiting two years, I imagine many were becoming skeptical that the system would ever arrive,” Koon said. “My hope is that the availability of clean water will improve the quality of life of the residents of the community and give us an opportunity to further develop relationships with them. We owe so much to Dr. Santiago and her team. Without them, this would not have been possible.” 

Paying the Price for Clean Water

Like most communities in Haiti’s countryside, Po Ploom has no electricity. Its only water source is Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti. 

Known locally as Étang Saumâtre, or “brackish pond” in English, the western part of Lake Azuéi contains brackish water, which is saltier than fresh water, but not as salty as seawater. Residents have access to fresh drinking water on the eastern side of the lake, which they also use for bathing and washing. Those who can afford it purchase powder bleach to disinfect the water before consuming it. 

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“It’s a beautiful area, but the water in the lake is not drinkable,” said Paul Diaz, UTEP electrical engineering graduate and vice president of IWS. He traveled to Po Ploom to help Santiago set up the system. “It’s very bad water. The conditions these residents live in are minimal.” 

Santiago first traveled to Haiti in 2016 to assess the needs of the community. 

Some residents travel two hours to the Dominican Republic or across the lake to purchase pouches or gallons of drinking water. 

For 25 gourdes, or 40 cents, they can get a ride across the border to buy a five-gallon bucket of water for 30 gourdes, the equivalent of 47 cents. A family of 15 uses five gallons of water per day. Some residents buy sacks that contain 60 six-ounce water pouches. 

But for the majority of Po Ploom’s families who make $20 a month selling charcoal, store-bought water is a luxury they can’t afford. 

“Few people can purchase water,” Santiago said. “Many of them use the little pouches for drinking water and then use the spring water for cooking and bathing, but it’s not always safe. But now that they have a new water filtration system, they’ll be able to have a safe source of potable water.” 

Taking the Plunge

When Santiago, an educator for 25 years, was first approached by New Vision to develop a water filtration system in Haiti, she saw it as a unique opportunity for undergraduate students such as Robert Mendez to apply their education to professional practice while making a world of difference. 

“I saw this project go from being a couple of doodles in my notebook, to being fully operational and making the community a better place,” said Mendez, who led the group of six students who adapted a design suggested by IWS and Solar Smart Living – two local partner companies that specialize in reverse osmosis and solar power. 

The students designed a unique and cutting-edge system that combined reverse osmosis desalination and solar energy to remove contaminants from the water. They initially planned to pump the water from Lake Azuéi, but water samples revealed that the lake’s seawater would be too difficult to clean. Instead, Santiago contracted a well driller from the Dominican Republic to travel to Po Ploom to dig a well 200 feet deep. 

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Once in the purification system, the water is cleaned by reverse osmosis – a process that removes inorganic solids, such as salts from water by pushing the water under pressure through a semi-permeable membrane. The clean water is then pumped into a storage tank where Po Ploom’s residents can fill up their plastic containers and jugs during the day. 

With no electricity to the site, the system is powered by 24 industrial-size batteries that are charged by 42 solar panels. 

A week after the system was turned on April 6, 2018, 10,000 gallons of water had been produced. 

“We’re producing about three gallons per minute,” explained Santiago, who plans to use Internet of Things (IoT)- based monitoring in the near future to remotely manage and gather data from the system. “It’s interesting because in the United States if you have 120 gallons per person per day, that’s good. In Po Ploom they’re getting less than five gallons per person per day and that’s great!”  

Engineering 101: Prepare for the Unexpected

Santiago, a licensed Professional Environmental Engineer in Texas, New Mexico and Puerto Rico, has worked on water quality projects in the United States, Puerto Rico and Juárez, Mexico. One of the most valuable lessons she has passed on to her students is to hope for the best but expect the worst. 

“Anticipating problems is a big part of an engineer’s job,” Santiago said, “because if we anticipate problems then we can solve problems quickly, especially in environments where you don’t have a Home Depot next door.” 

That is why after IWS and Solar Smart Living built the system, Mendez and the other students tested it at the IWS facilities in El Paso in August 2016. They then packed the batteries, solar panels, control boxes, a backup generator and a storage tank in a large metal shipping container destined for Haiti. Students also donated clothes and volleyballs to give to the residents.

“My team and I made everything work together and ensured that all the equipment was mounted and secured,” said Mendez, who graduated in May 2017 and is now an engineering inspector at the City of El Paso. “Most of the equipment was installed within a 20-foot shipping container and we had to essentially play engineering Tetris to fit all components in a way that would allow maintenance and ensure peak operation.” 

Santiago and the students were expected to travel to Po Ploom in June 2017 to set up the system, but problems with customs brokers, damaged equipment and hiring laborers caused a nearly yearlong delay. 

A major setback was when the container was put in the wrong orientation after it was delivered in Po Ploom. Santiago hired a crane operator to turn it around, but the crane couldn’t support the container’s weight. To lighten the load, residents removed one of the 200 pound batteries, which fell and broke. Santiago ordered a new battery and had it shipped from the United States to Haiti. 

“I spent a lot of time on the phone,” Santiago said. “But it was a really good experience to test the limits of my leadership skills and my abilities to communicate and convince people to trust me over the phone.” 

By the time Santiago, Paul Diaz, and David Chacón from Solar Smart Living left for Haiti, the six UTEP students who started the project had graduated in 2017. Instead, Daniel Castillo jumped in to help. 

Castillo had recently returned from the Philippines, where he’d spent spring break installing water filters in 100 homes with the student organization Engineers for a Sustainable World at UTEP.  

He wasn’t sure what to expect in Haiti, but he knew he was in for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

“Just seeing the value of what I learned outside of class and the application of it made this such an amazing hands-on learning experience,” Castillo said. “Not only seeing what goes into project management and the system and orienting yourself to do what’s required in the project, but also seeing the application of what I read about in the textbooks. I just felt so lucky to be a part of this.” 

The group stayed in Jiman’i in the Dominican Republic and traveled to Po Ploom in the early mornings. One day when the Dominican Republic’s border patrol refused to allow their truck filled with tools and equipment to cross into Haiti, locals arranged for them to cross the supplies, including a solar panel, on motorcycles. 

The first day in Po Ploom, volunteers dug trenches and the team set up the solar panels in three hours. The next day when they were ready to figure out the electrical system, Santiago realized that the control box was not working and she was grateful that David Chacón was there to hardwire the cables. 

“We had the perfect team,” she said. “That was the key.” 

Hope Springs Eternal

For Santiago, Po Ploom’s water quality project reaffirmed her belief that involving UTEP students in service learning projects prepares them to compete in the real world. 

“I would encourage employers to hire students who have participated in service learning opportunities because these are students who are problem solvers,” Santiago said. They have communication skills, adaptability and flexibility to work under difficult circumstances, and that’s what an employer wants. These service learning opportunities prepare students for conditions that are not always favorable, but then you get through them and you solve them, and you come through.”  

This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 UTEP Magazine. For more magazine content, visit