By Daniel Schemer, December 2008
The basic essentials to life, while commonplace for many of us, can become a heavy burden when taken away. Water is clear example of what everyone needs. Purified tap water is in most Americans’ homes and bottled water is available just about everywhere. It’s almost easy to forget that over a billion people worldwide don’t have this luxury and are forced to drink polluted, unsafe water. Many small towns and villages in poorer, developing countries rely on rivers and lakes that are the equivalent of sewers; the areas are guaranteed to be infested with bacteria, parasites, and animal waste. Around 1.6 million people die from diarrheal disease every year with the majority being children under the age of 5.
Providing cheap and simple methods for purifying water in developing countries is a slow, but rewarding process. Manuel Hernandez, Associate Art Professor at Northern Illinois University (NIU), has been doing this for the last 14 years, travelling all over the world bringing his skills as a ceramist and industrial designer to people in need of potable water. He has made his life a mission to give people access to the necessary technology required to making ceramic water filters. At a presentation in the Library Browsing Area on December 1, Professor Hernandez discussed the awful conditions people face with disease-ridden, off-colored water and his volunteer work as a technical consultant that has brought him to areas in Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
“Most of the areas I work in are off the grid,” said Professor Hernandez to a packed audience. One example he gave was when he travelled 1 hour by plane to a port city and then 4 ½ hours by boat to reach a village in Honduras. At the presentation, images were shown of women and children collecting and drinking from their disease-ridden water source; it was a shocking realization that disgusted and disheartened everyone in attendance. “The whole objective is to get clean, potable water into the countries where I am working. If you saw the water these people drink, it would make you sick…,”said Professor Hernandez in an article by Donna Marie Pocius for the summer 2008 edition of NIU’s Northern Now.
Professor Hernandez spends an average of 1-2 months on site conducting workshops where he teaches people how to construct and design the equipment necessary for creating a ceramic water filter factory. At a cost ranging from $8-$20 per unit, these cheap, easy-to-make filters fit over water jugs and make it so that the water doesn’t need to be boiled. According to the Center for Disease Control, a properly made ceramic filter has a 99% effective rate and can last for 5 years if properly cleaned and maintained.
Once Manuel Hernandez finds a local potter in the area, he knows that the most important material, clay, is accessible. Mr. Hernandez tries to make sure the construction and continuation of these factories is as self-contained and sustainable as possible. “You can set something up, but if it’s not sustainable, it doesn’t make sense.” Most, if not all, materials are bought or salvaged on site, though stuff is sometimes imported if the areas don’t have them. “When I go on projects, I can do everything on site.”
The ceramic filters are cooked in custom-made brick kiln ovens that can hold around 40 filters and are fueled by alternative sources, such as sawdust, rice husks, or other agricultural waste, in order to combat deforestation. This alternative fuel not only means less burning of wood, but also quickens the firing process of the filters. The alternative fuel is blown into the kiln using an injector system and sustains the fire during the cooking process. Equipment like clay mixers, hammer mills, sieves, and hydraulic filter presses, are also built on site; since electricity may not be an available power source, most of the machinery is made to be hand-operated. Once the ceramic filters are cooked and air dried, they are dipped in colloidal silver, usually imported, which kills any remaining bacteria lurking in the pores of the filter.
Most of these workshops are funded by non-government organizations (NGO’s) such as Doctors without Borders, Potters for Peace, International Development Enterprise, Rescue Task Force and the Peace Corps. Mr. Hernandez accepts only room and board for his services with the NGO’s funding the bill of materials. The potential of a ceramic water filter factory means more local jobs and “the setting up of a microenterprise,” according to Mr. Hernandez. Once the manufacturers pay back the funds, the factory and business are theirs. “It’s all open technology. There is no patent. Anyone can use it.”
A native of Aurora, Illinois, Manuel “Manny” Hernandez worked for 12 years as an industrial designer for studios in Chicago before getting a master of fine arts degree for ceramics at Northern Illinois University. Working his way up from lecturer to assistant professor to associate professor, Mr. Hernandez has been at NIU for over 30 years. From 1992-2006, he worked for Potters for Peace, a non-profit organization who, according to their official website, consist of a network of potters, educators, and volunteers devoted to socially responsible development and grassroots solidarity amongst craftsmen. He has since become freelance, working with different NGO’s and dividing his time between teaching at NIU and setting up ceramic workshops in developing countries.
Mr. Hernandez has no intention of slowing down; in a year, he will retire from teaching in a year and devote himself full-time to his ceramist endeavors. He has been working on developing smaller filters the size and shape of candles, which are easier to transport and useful in emergencies. He is also composing a training manual, to be accompanied with a DVD, in order to further spread his knowledge for building kilns and ceramic filters. “This is what I want to do. It keeps me busy and I thrive on it. Helping people makes me feel good.”
To learn more about Manny Hernandez and the work he does, check out a YouTube video made where he discusses and demonstrates this ceramic technology. You can find this video at http://www.tamuwaterproject.wordpress.com/about/. You can also read the article by Donna Marie Pocius by clicking on http://www.niu.edu/alumni/downloads/NNOWSUMMER08.pdf.