Colombia Purdue Initiative — CPI

Purdue-UniCartagena collaboration brings water filters to rural Colombia



On July 31st, Professor Chad Jafvert traveled to Cartagena with a group of 3 students in a Global Design Team supported by the Office of Global Engineering Programs. Their goal was to provide the community of San Jose del Playón, in Bolivar, with access to clean water. Prof. Jafvert, along with Prof. John Howarter at Purdue, have been working on a reliable and inexpensive slow sand (or bio-sand) filter system to improve water quality since 2011. Prof. Jafvert’s work has taken him to numerous places, including China, Tanzania, Kenya, and Colombia. In some areas in those countries, people struggle with diseases and difficulties derived from low water quality.

San Jose del Playón is a small town with over five thousand people, most of them of African descent. There are 853 family houses built on the shores of a lake or ciénaga. Its inhabitants are mostly fisherman and farmers, and their crops include yams, rice, bananas, beans, avocados, and palm oil. The region in which the town is located, Maria la Baja, has long endured poverty. It has also suffered extreme violence perpetrated by illegal armed groups, especially during the late 1990s. This situation stagnated the town’s economic activity, and weakened its development for many years.

The community also has been severely affected by its lack of a drinking water supply system, and most of the water that people drink is not suitable for consumption. People in San Juan del Playón obtain water either from wells, located on private property, or from a reservoir called Arroyo Grande. However, neither of these sources of water receives any treatment, and the community has experienced health problems as a result. The town’s school also has had major difficulties with drinking water supply for its students.

Wendy García and María José Rivas, two undergraduate students from Universidad de Cartagena, suggested San Jose del Playón as a place that would greatly benefit from the installation of water sand filters. They visited Purdue last April as part of the Cartagena Summer Study Abroad Program. They stayed in West Lafayette for 10 days, and they met with some Purdue faculty and students. Their advisor at Universidad de Cartagena, Professor Edgar Quiñones, had been in touch with Dr. Jafvert, and he made sure that the visiting students would learn about the water purification system developed by his Purdue colleague. Upon their return to Cartagena, Wendy and María José began to work on their senior projects, directed by Quiñones. They decided to focus on the installation and maintenance of the slow sand water filters because it allowed them to conduct research while also having a positive impact on the community, and they interacted with the people of San Jose del Playón.

The team that travelled to the village included Professor Jafvert, his 3 students, Professor Quiñones, Wendy, María José, 3 more students from their research group and Professor Dalia Moreno, Professor of Civil Engineering at Universidad de Cartagena. All of them, led by Professor Jafvert participated in the installation of two slow sand filters. Each 55-gallon (210 liter) slow sand filter has the capacity to produce 200 liters of clear water that can be easily chlorinated before consumption.  The filters were installed at the town’s school, with the intent to install more filters in the future to meet the needs of all students and teachers at the school. These sand filters offer numerous advantages, including their simple and economic construction, operation, and maintenance. Also, they do not require chemicals or energy for their operation, and they significantly improve water quality for the community.

The team also taught the community leaders, students and teachers, how to install additional filters and how to maintain the filters. The assembly and installation process took two days, and the third day was dedicated to the socialization of the project with the community of San Jose del Playón. Professor Jafvert mentioned that he was very pleased with the work carried out by all of the students, and by the participation of the community.

Professor Quiñones stated: “This is a great alliance. It allows both universities to conduct research, while also being socially responsible. For us at Universidad de Cartagena, it is important to modify our courses’ syllabus, so that we increasingly combine theory with practice. It is a great way of addressing some of the problems we have in our region”. He continues to monitor the progress made with the filters with help from his students who will periodically visit San Jose del Playón. The idea is to replicate this experience in other villages around Cartagena, which they have already started to contact. The goal is also to further foster the collaboration between Purdue and Colombia, while creating benefits for all. 


Kaylyn Colinco (student of chemical engineering at Purdue) and Prof. Jafvert sifting the sand using the trommel.


Assembling the trommel for screening. In the picture, Prof. Jafvert with elementary students from the school of Playón, and Yineth García and Wendy García, students at the University of Cartagena.


High school student from the school of Playón assisting in the transport of sand. In the background, the screening process.


Entire water filter system installed


Socialization of the project with students. In the picture, Prof. Edgar Quiñones (Professor of Civil Engineering and director of the research group Environmental Modeling, Universidad de Cartagena) is explaining the operation of the filters to students and teachers of the institution.


Sol Park (Purdue M.Sc. student) with students from the school of the village of Playón.


Working team formed by Universidad de Cartagena and Purdue University students and faculty, and the rector of the school of Playón. From left to right: Aura Hernández (Civil Engineering student, Universidad de Cartagena), Yineth García (Civil Engineering student, Universidad de Cartagena), Prof. Dalia Moreno (Professor of Civil Engineering, Universidad de Cartagena), Prof. Edgar Quiñones (Professor of Civil Engineering and Director of the research group in Environmental Modeling, Universidad de Cartagena), Hernán Bird (Rector of the educational Institution of the village of Playon), Prof. Chad Jafvert, Sanyukta Gokhale (Purdue student), Kaylyn Colinco (Purdue student), Sun Park (Purdue student), Maria José Rivas (Civil Engineering student, Universidad de Cartagena), Wendy García (Civil Engineering student, Universidad de Cartagena).


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