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Saving lives, CO2 emissions in Rwanda

• PSU project offers remote sensors to monitor progress


by: MEG WILLIAMS  /PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - PSU professor Evan Thomas (right) checks on student Evan Rhead's work on a sensor used to monitor the efficiency of cookstoves from afar. 
A Portland State University professor is spearheading a $50 million health campaign to serve clean water and energy to a quarter of Rwanda’s rural population.

The project will distribute water filters and efficient cookstoves to about 600,000 households by next spring, in an effort to reduce the need to boil drinking water and the demand for wood fuel.

The project aims to tackle two of Rwanda’s biggest health

issues: pneumonia and diarrhea. Dirty water causes the vast majority of disease in Rwanda, where life expectancy is less than 50 years.

“We anticipate this project will bring significant health improvements to these communities and demonstrate the potential to deploy and monitor international health programs like this on a very large scale,” says Evan Thomas, the engineering professor who will oversee the distribution of the filters on-site.

About 600 of the filters and cookstoves will be equipped with a remote smart sensor — known as SweetSense — developed by Thomas and his PSU students.

“The sensors help us answer two questions: Does the technology work, and do people use it?” Thomas says. Many international development projects rely on in-person spot checks, making it difficult to collect reliable data and convince donors that improvements will be long-lasting.

“The overall motivation is to improve the sustainability of these programs, through better data collection and more sustained financial mechanisms,” Thomas says. The biggest challenge in global development, he says, is often the finite funding for a project without long-term monitoring.

Data from the sensors in Rwanda is sent back in real time to the lab at PSU for students to analyze.

By next spring, 2,000 Rwandese community health workers will distribute water filters and clean-burning cookstoves to serve nearly 3 million people.

According to Thomas, there are 1 billion people worldwide who lack access to clean drinking water, 2 billion who lack access to safe sanitation facilities, and 3 billion who use biomass for their daily energy needs. “These are the leading causes of economic stagnation, illness, and death in many places in the world, and we’re able to help address that.”

The project will be made possible through the use of carbon credits, each of which equals one ton of carbon dioxide either not emitted or removed from the atmosphere. Companies or countries can then buy those credits to show compliance with the climate-change obligations of the Kyoto Protocols.

Thomas says the carbon price can vary between roughly $5 a credit to as much as $30, depending on the market and the particular project. He anticipates generating several million credits a year, and repaying the project’s initial cost over three years, though organizers are still shopping around for potential credit buyers.

The idea is that the cookstoves lower carbon emissions by reducing the need to chop down so many trees, and the water filters reduce the energy needed to boil water.

Indoor air pollution from cookstove smoke has been classified by the World Health Organization as one of the biggest threats to the public health of vulnerable populations in developing countries, leading to nearly 2 million deaths annually.

Every year, 1.5 million people die from diarrhea and other enteric illnesses associated with lack of access to safe drinking water and poor sanitation. Ninety percent of those people are children under the age of 5, most of them in developing countries.

Josh Kefauver, chief operating officer of Manna Energy — the British company implementing the clean water program — calls their work in Rwanda a health campaign to train households on the use of these healthier, cleaner habits.

“It’s a really elegant system that we think will seriously benefit the community,” he says. Kefauver has been in Rwanda since April, and plans on staying there semi-permanently for the duration of the 10-year program. He is in charge of making individual house calls to find out who will need the filters and cookstoves.

Five AA batteries power each sensor for up to a year while it measures usage and performance. Portland State engineering students have helped develop the sensors over the past year and a half.

Thomas has received $550,000 to commercialize the remote sensors in partnership with Oregon BEST, the Lemelson Foundation, Stevens Water and Mercy Corps, all based in Portland.

Thomas, who is now in Rwanda, will lead a trial distribution of the filters and stoves this fall to 2,000 homes, and begin monitoring usage data. He helped design and implement a similar effort in 2011 that covered 877,000 households in Kenya.