From thin air: Clean water for Tanzanian schools

April 8, 2024

Access to safe water and sanitation is still a challenge in a lot of countries. Illness from dirty drinking water and daily treks to fetch it, mean many children cannot attend school. Thanks to a collaboration with Hamburg-based nonprofit Viva con Agua, GEA helps bring clean water to several schools in Tanzania – using some very magical technology.

Lack of safe water causes thousands of deaths each year in Tanzania. The economic cost is estimated at more than $2.4 billion annually due to excess medical costs and lost productivity. Fetching water is a task often performed by women and children and robs them of opportunities to work outside the home or attend school. Without proper sanitation, girl’s face an additional barrier to education.

We spoke to Carolin Stüdemann, Managing Director of the nonprofit, Viva con Agua de Sankt Pauli e.V. in Hamburg, Germany, to learn about water scarcity in Tanzania. And we discuss how GEA’s support improves access to clean water and sanitation there.

Carolin Stüdemann, Managing Director, Viva con Agua de Sankt Pauli e.V., Hamburg, Germany (Image: Viva con Agua/ Oliver Rösler)

What is the overall water situation in Tanzania and why is support needed?

Carolin Stüdemann (CS): Despite a relative abundance of freshwater in Tanzania, it’s not always safe to drink or wash with. Half to one-third of the population of Tanzania have no access to clean water, depending on the season. The nearest water source may be located in hard-to-reach places, making it a tiring and sometimes dangerous task to retrieve. 

Wells do exist, but contamination from rusting pipes, agriculture or industrial activity is common. Some of our projects take place at 2,000 meters or more above sea level. These areas have low groundwater levels, which makes new well construction unfeasible. And while systematic testing of all types of water sources could reduce illness, this is seldom carried out. 

Is climate change worsening the situation?

CS: Absolutely. Communities can no longer depend on traditional weather patterns. The rainy season is often shorter which means families are unable to tide themselves over with rainwater stores. Flooding causes problems too, overwhelming latrines and wash facilities which can contaminate freshwater sources, which increases the risk of cholera outbreaks.

How does Viva con Agua help communities access clean water?

CS: Our teams work in some of the most challenging environments around the world providing WASH solutions, which stands for water, sanitation and hygiene. In collaboration with local authorities, we identify schools where access to safe water and hygiene facilities are lacking. Depending on the location, environment and needs, Viva con Agua oversees the creation of toilets and wash facilities, well drilling, rainwater collection from roofs and other nature-based solutions. We also provide hygiene training for students.

It’s never about one solution – and no one solution works everywhere. First, we analyze potential locations and test the quality of the water sources. Next, we develop a project plan and align it with local authorities. We also test and repair existing wells and infrastructure since we can do this at a fraction of the cost of new installations. 

Why target schools? Wouldn’t your efforts have greater impact within villages?

CS: In Tanzania, schools are hubs and often located between villages so more children can attend. This makes them an ideal location for water projects. The water and facilities we provide, with the support of donors like GEA, are in fact available to everyone in the community, maximizing the impact of our efforts.

Hygiene training is critical to the success and therefore design of our projects. Through the universal languages of sports, music and art we make it more fun to learn about good hygiene practices. And this knowledge finds its way back to the parents. School children are the ideal multiplier when it comes to changing behavior and attitudes.

The result is fewer cases of diarrhea due to contaminated water, which has a positive knock-on effect on the local economy and of course school attendance. School is so important because it provides a gateway for young people to take some control over their lives and future.

Students receive WASH training on the playing field, Mbulu district, Tanzania. (Image: Giri Khatri for Viva con Agua)

How does GEA support Viva con Agua’s efforts in Tanzania? 

CS: GEA approached us in 2022. We shared our goals and came up with a 3-year plan. In 2023, GEA provided us with financial support to do fog net testing in the Babati region. Due to low water yields, we moved our WASH projects to the Mbulu district in the region of Manyara. Here we tested and are in the process of installing fog nets which will supply up to 1,000 liters of clean drinking water per day to each of the eight schools included in this project. Our goal is to complete them by 2025. 

We also draw on GEA’s expertise to analyze water samples and suggest a course of treatment. And more recently, GEA’s procurement team provided us with new ideas for sourcing materials more cost-effectively.

What are fog nets and how do they work? Why are they an important solution?

CS: Collecting condensation is actually an ancient practice. About two decades ago, engineers developed special nets to scale up this process by capturing water from fog. Basically, a group of nets are placed facing prevailing winds. As the fog moves through them, water droplets are deposited on the mesh. A second net, rubbing against the first, forces the droplets together. When the droplets are heavy enough, they fall downwards and collect in a trough leading to a larger receptacle.

Rainwater is a lifeline in rural Tanzania, but during the dry season, rain shortages limit traditional collection methods. However, even when rain is less frequent, there’s still a lot of humidity in the air. In Tanzania this results in more foggy days. The nets in Mbulu can collect up to 1,000 liters of water during the foggiest days, with the average between 600 and 800 liters per day. The beauty of this technology is that it provides free water that is often safer to drink than local ground water. Also, no electricity is required to run the nets. They are also easy to repair, and only occasional brushing is needed to keep them clean. 

What are Viva con Agua’s future plans in Tanzania? 

CS: We’re making progress in Tanzania, but there is more work to do. Climate change will require communities to prioritize water even more. We have good support from local authorities to carry out projects. We will check back with the schools we’ve supported to assess upkeep and local monitoring efforts.

Why is awareness about water and sanitation so important? 

CS: Water access and sanitation must be prioritized globally. It is the foundation for everything else. In Tanzania, diarrhea-related deaths reached 17,587 in 2020, constituting 5.96 percent of total deaths. And when people spend three or four hours every day to access water – clean or otherwise – that’s a huge loss of potential, resulting in massive inequality. We just need to help people change their starting position, then afterwards they can help themselves.

Fulfilling a need, fulfilling our purpose

“We know how life-changing clean water is for communities. We are very pleased to see the positive impact our support has on the lives of school children and their families in Tanzania.”

-  Dr. Nadine Sterley, Chief Sustainability Officer, GEA

At GEA, we seek to live our purpose – Engineering for a better world – every day. This purpose provides an important north star for GEA’s sustainability activities. Our teams implement water recovery and water treatment solutions for customers around the world and we love seeing the positive impact these have on businesses and communities. Combatting child poverty and promoting access to clean water are key focus areas of our corporate giving and skills-based volunteering program. That’s why GEA is so happy to support Viva con Agua’s work in Tanzania. 

Image: Construction of a water storage tank at Nambis School, Mbulu district, Tanzania. (Giri Khatri for Viva con Agua)

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