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Solar Energy Project Brings Drinking Water to Rural Tanzania - 2004-02-27

A pilot program in Tanzania is using solar energy to bring clean drinking water to rural, isolated areas. Project organizers say this is a first step in their plans to bring clean water to some of the world's poorest countries.

It's called "One Village at a Time," bringing safe drinking water to rural areas by harnessing the sun's energy. Using a portable solar-powered water purification machine, the pilot project is being carried out at a coffee-producing cooperative in Tanzania. The results so far have been impressive.

David Robinson, an American who heads the 400 member coffee cooperative named Sweet Unity, says the project has improved people's lives since it was launched in September of last year.

"In the past we've taken the stomach illnesses as part of living. Two, three times a year, people have a major stomach illness, often stomach rumblings, and all of that now is eliminated," he said. "People are just coming with either one gallon or five gallon jugs and getting the pure water and bringing it home."

The project is sponsored by two U.S.-based organizations, the 1st Rochdale Cooperative, an energy services company, and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The water purification system uses solar panels to convert energy from the sun into electricity, which in turn runs an ultraviolet water purification process capable of producing between 300 and 750 gallons of fresh drinking water per day. That, organizers say, can meet the demands of hundreds of rural villagers, considering that people in developing countries typically consume two gallons of water per day.

With the success of the first phase of the project, the next step is developing a way to package and distribute the clean water. Construction is already underway on a packaging facility at the Sweet Unity cooperative. This will enable the collective to distribute safe drinking water to villages within a 40 kilometer radius.

Thomas Thompson, Vice President of Sustainable Energy at 1st Rochdale Cooperative, says the Tanzanian project is not only a model of how to provide cheap clean water to isolated areas, but it is also an example of how solar-powered energy can be used as a viable, sustainable small community business.

"It's a micro-enterprise structure that does not require intensive amounts of capital, generates immediate cash flow with respect to the sale of the water, and also provides employment and technology transfer to the developing world," he said.

Mr. Thompson says it will cost about $10,000 to set up each solar-powered water purification system. He says plans are under way to expand the project to six more villages in Tanzania within the next two years. The challenge now will be finding donors to help fund the program on a much wider scale.