Chicken Taquitos (NRC – Part 2)

This week of the NRC project features chicken³ (no, that’s not a footnote).

I had chicken taquitos for dinner the other night. Trader Joe’s, a grocery store with its headquarters in Monrovia, CA, prides itself on having “innovative, hard-to-find and great-tasting foods”. Well, as I found from examining the ingredients listed on the taquitos box, their food really is quite innovative. With these delicious meat tubes, they have achieved chicken inception. Chicken within chicken…within chicken. Chicken³.

This is the list of ingredients on the box (I put them into a bullet-ed list here, but on the box it’s listed in brackets, all in one paragraph):

  • chicken
    • chicken
    • water
    • flavoring
    • chicken base
      • chicken meat in natural chicken juices
      • salt
      • sugar
      • corn syrup solids
      • chicken fat
      • flavoring
      • autolyzed yeast extract
      • tumeric
    • chicken fat
    • spices
    • sodium phosphate
  • tortilla
    • corn
    • water
    • lime
  • soybean oil
  • modified food starch

What the (chicken) fluff. Isn’t that kind of ridiculous that the chicken is ‘incepted’ into itself? This makes the meat included in these delicious pipes of carne seem very processed, amirite? What is the deal with processed food anyway? A lot of people say it’s bad for you, but what is the true deal? This is a question I want to answer in this project.

At first glances, sodium phosphate looks a bit ominous. That said, sodium phosphate is just the name of a chemical compound. A fancy -ate or -ide name doesn’t necessarily mean eating it will have a negative impact on your health. For example, you could go around calling the stuff you put on your food every day sodium chloride but it’s no more dangerous to your health than calling it salt. There’s a fair amount of people who would say that “chemicals” are bad for you. Pray tell, what do you define as a chemical? Definitely, there are substances that are bad for you (e.g. too much “nitrate” in your drinking water from nearby agricultural run-off) but it seems there is too much alarmism about BIG BAD CHEMICALS IN YOUR FOOD. Another question I want to answer in this project, how do you define bad chemicals in food?

This is only one dish and already my NRC is looking like it’s going to get complicated. Bring it on!

As part of my fact-finding mission so far, I have emailed Trader Joe’s and the Water, Sewer and Street Bureau of Arlington County. I haven’t heard back from Trader-J’s but I am going to have a call with someone who was listed on my email as “Water Quality” in the next week to talk about dat H-two-Oh.

These first few weeks of the project have been focused on overall questions. I have been thinking about how I want to approach the whole thing. Do I list all the things I consume every single day (e.g. keeping a consumption journal?) or do I focus on specific case studies as I did in this post? Maybe I’ll do both. Who knows what the future holds! You just gotta keep checking back to find out.


Where does it come from? (NRC – Part 1)

Hello lovely people!

I just finished a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. In it, Rubin sets out on a year-long project to determine the meaning of “happiness” and to boost it in her own life. At the beginning, she set out personal commandments for herself, such as “Be Gretchen”. She made a resolutions chart with concrete actions that would improve her happiness and fulfill these personal commandments. Each month, using these commandments and resolutions, she focused on improving a specific area of her life. The book is phenomenal and had great insights into personal happiness.

As I read it, I realized what one of my resolutions would be.

I frequently think about overpopulation. It really scares me. I think that human consumption of natural resources will damage the world irreparably if it continues unchecked. There are many scientists out there who argue that we have already gone too far. All in all, it makes me feel lousy and I want to do something about it.

My mini-“happiness project” is going to be aimed at answering the question: where does it come from?

In this project, I aim to determine the actual amount of natural resources (e.g. coal, water etc.) that I am using, sometimes implicitly, when I consume goods, be it food, clothes or running the AC in my apartment. As I was trained as an engineer in school, this particularly excites me because I’ll be using equations to quantify the “natural resources costs” of my consumption (YAY MATH!).

I do not think this will be easy, or that I will even be able to comprehensively determine the exact NRC, or natural resources cost, of all of my actions. I foresee needing to call various companies to determine where their products come from and how they were produced. 

This is just the start of my quest for increased understanding of this massive trend. There is so much debate these days about global warming, climate change and our effect on this planet. I always find it hard to see what is the absolute truth. Looking at it from a scientific method perspective, to determine the “truth” you need data and an outcome that can be repeated. I’m going to focus on the data from my own life and go from there.

Here I go!

Let’s start off with my toilet because it involves two of my passions, drinking water and wastewater (yep, you have some normal passions there Ariel…). Every time I flush, 1.6 gallons (6 litres) of potable water is sucked down into the sewer system. I have been up for 2 hours this morning, and I have already used the toilet 3 times (I drink a lot of coffee…). That’s 4.8 gallons (18 litres) right there. I also use toilet paper. I’ve counted the number of squares I pulled out on two occasions. The first occasion, I counted 12 squares. On the second, I counted 10. From this sample, I average at 11 squares. 

For each time I use and flush the toilet in my home, 1.6 gallons of potable water and 11 squares move from my toilet bowl into the sewer system. To calculate the cost of this action, I need to determine the cost from the very beginning.

  • Where did the water in my toilet originate in nature?
  • What treatment process did it undergo before being pumped into the distribution system of my county?
  • How much energy was spent getting that water from the treatment facility to my toilet bowl?
  • How about the toilet paper, what tree(s) is it made of?
  • How were those trees cut down and processed?
  • How did the raw material get to the factory that makes toilet paper?
  • How did that toilet paper get to the store where I bought it?
  • Once the waste is in the sewer system, how did it get to the wastewater treatment plant?
  • What is the treatment process of waste at the plant?
  • How was it discharged back into nature?

There you have it, answering this list of questions is my homework. I’ll report back with my findings soon!


It’s hard to blog!

Hey people, Ariel here.

I’ve found it hard to keep up posting regularly. (If you have any blog management tips related to that, I’d much appreciate it!) I think part of the problem is, related to the tagline we have on our front page, water is everything. It relates to and is influenced by so many different aspects of our lives. It’s overwhelming and hard to find a good starting point. Also, I have perfectionist tendencies which means I feel like I have to get my head ALL THE WAY AROUND something before I begin doing it. But, I think I will never get my head ALL THE WAY AROUND water and its many quirks. Heck, that’s why I want my career to always be in it.

So I’m changing my mantra to “strive for progress, not perfection”. I think that will help get (and keep) me going.

Also, I’m aiming to focus my content on a few areas:

  • water management in East Africa and the Western United States
  • water quality
  • urban water and wastewater infrastructure
  • aid effectiveness

What are your methods for combating your perfectionism? How do you keep yourself blogging?



Ceramic Water Filters 101

By: Rachel Schmidt

Who am I?

Helllllllo Team!   I’m so excited to be writing a guest blog for H2dayO!  My name is Rachel Schmidt, and I know Ariel from our civil engineering days at good ole UVa (University of Virginia)!  We took many classes together and spent a summer working with families and slow sand water filtration units in La Gracia, Belize.  I have yet to meet Monique – but hopefully somewhere down the line!

South Africa

So let’s get to the good stuff… I’ve recently returned from a 9-month Fulbright Grant in rural South Africa. I was working to further develop and establish a Ceramic Water Filter (CWF) Factory.  The two big-picture goals include: 1) Get clean water into the community (along with awareness and sanitation education to help prevent disease), and 2) Revive a local business so the workers can produce a profit to support their families.

The Team

I worked with a large UVa-based team, led by Professor Jim Smith, as well as a sizeable University of Venda team, located in Limpopo Province, South Africa.   The multidisciplinary teams include students and staff from anthropology, architecture, biology, business, engineering, and nursing, among others.  We worked closely with a Limpopo-based women’s organization known as the Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative.  Together, these teams make up our newly founded organization, PureMadi – check it out here:…  Pure is for purifying water, and Madi means water in the local Venda language, Tshivenda!

Mukondeni Pottery

The Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative began over 25 years ago with a group of women coming together to teach ceramic skills and develop a small business.  Today, Mukondeni has grown to include 40+ women, a large building to work in, and an expansive outdoor display area (see Figures 1 and 2).  Due to poorly maintained roads and increased competition in the area, Mukondeni is finding it difficult to sell enough pottery to make a profit.  The ladies’ knowledge of ceramic artistry, current financial outlook, willingness to try new technologies, past relationship with the University of Venda, and local survey data resulted in the Universities approaching them to join into a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ceramic Water Filter Technology

Ceramic water filters originated in 1980, and were streamlined in the 1990s to be uniform in size (think flower pot shaped) and capability.  Laboratory and field-testing of CWFs has determined they are highly effective in reducing waterborne pathogens and disinfecting harmful bacteria.

Materials included for CWF production: 

a) Clay – found and mined locally

b) Water – provided by on-site borehole

c) Sawdust – provided for free by local lumber mills

d) Silver nanoparticles – provided by UVa team

Process to create CWFs:

1)       Dry clay and use electric hammer mill to grind clay into a fine dust

2)       Dry sawdust and sieve down to desired size

3)       Add fixed ratio of clay and sawdust into electric mixer, then add water

4)       Use hydraulic press to mold filters into uniform shape (see Figure 3)

5)       Allow filters to dry, and fix imperfections and rims

6)       Fire in wood-burning (or electric!) kiln – this allows the sawdust inside the filters to combust, leaving small pores in the media to allow water to filter through – thus handling the physical decontamination

7)       Perform the pressure test (make sure there are no cracks), and the flow rate test (to ensure water spends enough time in the media to be effectively filtered, but isn’t too slow to prevent usability!) for quality assurance (see Figure 4)

8)       Dilute silver solution, and paint onto each filter – this takes care of the chemical disinfection of the filtration process (see Figure 5)

9)       Prepare bucket by rinsing it out, drilling and inserting plastic spigot, and slapping on a sticker

10)   Place filter in the bucket, snap on the lid, and you’ve got yourself a ceramic water filter



I reached a few major challenges…

1)       Language:  Tshivenda is a difficult language to learn, as it doesn’t translate well and includes noises I have never made before.  A few of the women spoke English, so we all gained patience and understanding while learning to connect and communicate effectively.

2)       Culture:  Communication was not only difficult due to the language barrier, but to the cultural differences as well.  On multiple occasions, I encountered vastly diverse cultural expectations, which often to led to severe misunderstandings.  These differences were difficult to cope with, until I recognized the situation and could work harder to stay transparent and keep folks updated.

3)       Roof:  The roof of the open-air factory blew off during a huge storm!  Luckily, no one was at the site or harmed, but it put a one-month delay on filter production.

4)       Press:  Two of the three filter molds dented during pressing, which left us with a multi-week delay to get them re-fitted and filled with concrete.

5)       Kiln:  The wood-burning kiln was very difficult to work with, and rarely reached 900C, resulting in unacceptable filters.  WOMP.  I was not able to master the balance of stoking, airflow changes, timing, or teach the concept well enough.  We ended up re-furbishing an old electric kiln that had been on site since the 90’s.

Wrapping Up…

All in all, my work in South Africa focused on structuring and perfecting the filter-creation process, ensuring that the women could produce filters independently, and helping them get their business off the ground.  I worked with the Cooperative Manager to engage additional stakeholders, initiate a marketing program, distribute our first batch of filters, and provide trainings for all of the women.   The Universities and I remain committed to Mukondeni for the long haul, even once we have reached an acceptable level of independent sustainability.

There you have it…. the super basics of starting and maintaining a ceramic water filter factory!  It was a wonderful experience in which I formed amazing friendships with these women, learned the technical nitty-gritty of CWFs, practically started a small business, and experienced living abroad!

Water is Life.

The Crystal, a sustainable cities initiative by Siemens exploring tomorrow’s cities today. Home to the world’s largest exhibition focused on urban sustainability and a world-class center for dialogue, discovery and learning.

It’s about service delivery

My first work trip was this past April to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I had two main things I did while I was there. One: had the media launch event of the Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) program that is working in 7 rural woredas (districts) in Ethiopia. This is the main work of our office and is funded by The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation. It is an initiative to reach 2 million people in Africa with access to clean water by 2015. Two: attended the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre’s (IRC) Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery Symposium.

As Nico Terra, Director of IRC, said in his welcome note, “there is evident momentum for monitoring in the WASH sector, and a general willingness to improve it. But how and where do we start?” and we must make sure that data isn’t collected just to be collected. There must be an intention for collecting the data and a vision for improvement due to findings.

There are more people in this world that have cellphones than have access to improved sanitation. This seems like a monumental opportunity because of the sheer number of potential data collectors. Many WASH organizations are rushing to monopolize on this apparent capacity. So many people have mobile phones. What if they used their mobile phones to report on the functionality of a water or sanitation system? Akvo FLOW uses this methodology. charity: water just received a sizeable grant from Google to enhance their remote monitoring. Remote monitoring means that they will be able to see, in real-time, often from halfway around the world, how much water is flowing from their handpumps. The organization Grunfos also has done interesting work in this arena.

So, the problem is getting solved, right? We know where to start. We have fantastic technologies and enough users to monitor that have cellphones. We should be able to know exactly what happens once we have installed a handpump in a rural village in Ethiopia. A community member can text a monitoring system when the handpump is not working.

Then comes the next issue. What will we do when we see failures? There is so much need in this area with over 750 million people without access to clean water and 2.5 billion people without access to an improved toilet. There is so much work to do! Partly because of this, donors are somewhat resistant to go back to the same area. Once you put in a handpump, the community is set, right?

There has been great work done by WASHCost project of IRC in this regard. The WASHCost Calculator was released in Beta testing just this week. Watch Nick Dickinson from IRC and two Water for People staff talk about the calculator and other financial tools for sustainable service delivery. The calculator, once you input data about local context, technology and quality information, will give a report of the true cost it will take to install and maintain that give water system. There is also a WASH Cost Sanitation calculator. This tool maps out the costs over time that a water system needs for maintenance in order to provide continuing services. I’m very excited about the potential of this tool and it has been neat to test it in Beta.

This was another big takeaway from the Symposium. It is not just about providing access to clean water. This is not to say that it isn’t amazing when a village receives water for the first time, because it is amazing and it is a large part of why I work in this field. I just think we have a tendency to be blinded by the glamor of providing first-time access. It is about sustainable service delivery that will be provided for years. It is not about a pump breaking down a year after installation because the NGO that installed it didn’t make sure the water committee in charge of its maintenance had access to a spare parts supply or the funds to pay for said parts.

Sustainability love,

The light spectrum…

ImageAcademics is a strange, strange world. My research and focus has stemmed from trailer parks and natural disasters, to algae reactors for cancer research. My experience has ranged from non-profits whose budget is $750 (from two bake sales) to the unlimited federal system. Although none of it seems to make any sense at a surface level, these are all related in the gravities of the cellular level. Overall, it is about vulnerable populations.

Being an Urban Planner and being a Civil Engineer are two fields with a breadth of opportunity, which are engulfed in combining the natural and built environments. A triumph that has yet to create a model of true sustainability for all participants and citizens (these are two very different bodies) has yet to come to fruition. As my academic career comes to a close, only 2 semesters left in total, I am struck with the complexity of meaning and purpose. There is always someone being left out, a periphery to address or to some, to ignore, and the magnificent money making business of corruption that is seen in every policy and every project. What concerns me the most is when projects that are aqua-centric, are exploited. The fundamental proof of existence and life that is prostituted for money or used as a controlling device is beyond sickening. From forcing indigenous peoples to pay for water, diverting groundwater sources thus drying the wells, dumping pollution into waterways, fracking causing tap water to catch fire, intentional poisoning, deliberate failing of projects for tax breaks, the list goes on and on and on. Call it naïve, but I know there is a way to stop this.

A motivation and symbolic gesture: the color black (feeling helpless in the grand complexity of global concerns and problems) can be understood as the absorption of all COLOR (causes, concerns, positive and negative, everything). This is meaningful growth, not dark and isolating although the issues concerning water may sometimes feel that way.  Understanding all components to reality is the first step in creative solutions and problem solving. What feels or appears negative may be the most important forward progression. I think, with it all said and done, I have learned this. Accepting the negatives exist may in fact be the first step towards becoming an active global citizen.  Maybe. It is difficult to read endless accounts around the world regarding water, but trying to create a positive and safe environment is a motivation many people are working towards through engineering, planning, education, art, film, political activism, human rights, policy, and countless other efforts.

What I’ve Learned at the 6 Month Mark

I currently hold my first money-paying, time-sheet-entering, boss-reporting job. Ever. (Unless we count the phone campaign I did for the boarding school I went to. Seeing as I was paid with a bottle of Champagne and 50 pounds, I think we can’t count that)

Anyways, I feel like I’ve learned a lot in these past 6 months. Here’s just a quick list.

  • I’m getting really good at telling who the charity: water employees are at water-y events. Hint: they are all ludicrously trendy.
  • Continuing with charity: water, I found out that they have trademarked the jerry can image you see on all their materials. Don’t know how I feel about that. Honestly, I don’t know.
  • Water For People is really vocal and I like what they’re talking (shouting) about.
  • I know what the capital of Burkina Faso is (it’s Ouagadougou).
  • If my dreams are realized (everyone having access to clean water and adequate sanitation) then I will have no job. That’s when I’ll start a green-roofing company in Portland, open a psychiatry practice or work for The National Park Service.
  • I learned that UNICEF stands for United Nation Children’s Fund.
  • If you’re excited for Monday morning, that’s good.
  • There will always be a new, cool water technology. Thankfully!
  • Providing water for a human being for life does not cost $25. Nope. Not possible. Think about it.
  • Sanitation is the awkward middle child of WASH. It has the some of the most complicated issues but is generally ignored in favor of the eldest sibling (water) and the youngest (hygiene).
  • People in DC like to talk about politics.
  • Matt Damon.

Also I’m going on my first work trip to Ethiopia in a week and a half! Look out for a blogpost about that for sure.




To be continued…

To be continued…

We have been really busy with work projects and grad school. Sorry we haven’t updated in awhile, just hold tight as we catch up on our work. We’ll be back soon with interesting material and a few debates. Adios!