AguaClara Reach - empowering communities to own and operate gravity-powered water treatment plants

We train organizations to build sustainable, affordable, nonelectric water treatment plants in under-served communities.

Photo of Maysoon Sharif
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I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria, and based on its description, I am eligible to apply to the CSV Prize 2017.

  • Yes, I'm eligible

Preferred language

  • English

Organization name

AguaClara Reach

Year founded


Initiative stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages and demonstrated success)

Annual budget in 2017 (USD)

  • $100k - $250k

Number of beneficiaries impacted so far

  • 50,000 - 100,000

Organization type

  • Nonprofit, NGO, or citizen sector

Secondary Focus Area

  • Water

Headquarters location: Country

  • United States of America

Headquarters location: City

Ithaca, NY

Location(s) of impact

Honduras: La Paz, Gracias, Francisco Morazan Nicaragua: La Jinoteca, San Rafael del Norte India: Keonjhar, Khunti, Koderma


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Problem: What problem is this initiative trying to address?

2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and conventional water treatment plants, which last at most 2 years in under-served communities, fail to solve the problem. They need skilled technicians for long-term operation and rely on proprietary parts that are cost-prohibitive to replace in rural areas. They are expensive to operate due to energy demand and suffer frequent service outages in regions where electricity is unreliable.

Solution Summary: What is the proposed solution? What do you see as its most promising aspects for creating shared value?

AguaClara Reach trains local organizations to build nonelectric, municipal-scale water treatment systems that are sustainable in under-served communities: they are built using locally-available materials by local labor, can be operated by a person with a 6th grade education, and are powered by gravity. The capital cost of an AguaClara plant is half that of a conventional treatment plant and one-third as much to operate. Our partners take a series of design and field courses aimed at empowering them to 1) tailor designs - which are under continual development at Cornell University and available in the public domain - according to the specific needs in their context, 2) build the systems with local labor, and 3) transfer ownership to beneficiary communities. Then, partners feed lessons learned back to Cornell to drive further research and innovation.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Specify both the social and the environmental impact of your work

Since 2005, 14 AguaClara plants have been built in Honduras, serving 65,000 people, and 4 plants in India, serving 2,000 people. These plants are being operated and maintained independently by the communities they serve to this day. AguaClara plants allow every household to have sustainable, consistent access to safe drinking water on tap. Drinking water infrastructure immediately reduces incidence of waterborne disease, which in turn enables adults to have productive working days and kids to attend school more often, strengthening the economic potential of the community. Delivery of water to household taps saves women time in collecting water from distant sources. School-age girls put their saved time towards education, while women put it towards child care activities that reduce infant mortality, or leadership roles that increase their representation in the local democratic process.

Financial sustainability plan: How is this initiative financially supported? How will you ensure its financial sustainability long-term?

Since 2013, on average our annual budget was covered 88% by earned income, 8% by donations, and 4% by grants. We charge fees for design and field courses. Personnel in our partner organizations get accreditation for one year for completing the courses. Each technology has a different course associated with it, and professionals must engage in continuing education to maintain accreditation, ensuring they have the latest knowledge coming out of Cornell. Technologies implemented by accredited professionals are eligible for certification for a fee. Because our technologies are not patented, we cannot enforce the Design Certification fee. However, certification demonstrates that we have provided quality assurance, which will be attractive to major donors.

Unique value proposition: What makes your initiative innovative? How does your project differ from other organizations working in the same field?

We invented technologies not found in conventional mechanized plants or competing nonelectric plants: 1) a pump-free, sensor-free chemical doser that automatically starts up, shuts off, and adjusts to fluctuating water flows, 2) a self-cleaning sedimentation tank that treats water to World Health Organization standards prior to filtration, and 3) a stacked rapid sand filter that requires 80% less area to build, wastes 80% less water, and is easily backwashed without pumps or clearwells.

Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that sparked the beginning of this initiative.

Dr. Monroe Weber-Shirk, founder of the AguaClara program at Cornell, worked with Salvadoran refugees in Honduras in the eighties. During this time, he observed that the major barriers to long-term operation of centralized drinking water treatment plants included dependence on electricity, use of parts prone to failure, and operational complexity. Thus, he set out to develop a solution that communities could independently maintain for decades at time: open source systems that are simple to operate, simple to construct, electricity-free, and use parts that are locally replaceable. AguaClara Reach bridges the gap between technology development and field implementation by empowering local organizations to both scale the systems worldwide and also to provide long-term support to communities.

Where did you hear about the Nestlé Creating Shared Value Prize?

  • Ashoka page or contact

Program Design Clarity: We are hungry to know more about what exactly your model consists of. Succinctly list a) what main activities are you doing with your beneficiaries, b) where you carry out the activities? c) how often? d) for how many hours? e) who delivers the services? and f) any other brief details

Our design engineer collaborates with the partner and community, both remotely and during site visits, to produce a design concept for a water treatment plant that meets the community’s needs. The design engineer trains the partner to turn the design concept into a construction-ready design according to national standards. The partner works with the community to plan and execute the construction. Our field engineer-trainer helps the community select operator candidates, who join those contributing labor during construction. The partner helps the community form a Water Board of democratically-elected local members and trains them in their legal duties. The Water Board collects a monthly water tariff, which the engineer-trainer helps them set so that it covers operators’ salaries and consumables, and allows them to save for future repairs. During construction, both in the classroom and on site, the engineer-trainer works full time to train the partner’s implementation team so they can build, operate, maintain, repair, and troubleshoot the system. The partner tailors the training to the operator candidates and delivers it in the engineer-trainer’s presence. The partner, with assistance from the engineer trainer, runs the plant alongside the operator candidates for several weeks, eventually handing over full responsibility to them. Then operators are selected, and we continue to monitor the system for a predetermined period, assisting with any difficulties that arise.

Focus area

  • Water

We are interested in learning more about your initiative's broad impact on sustainable development. Please reply ONLY to the question(s) related to your above focus area.

Due to a lack of cost-effective, long-term solutions for surface water treatment in low-income areas, communities often turn to depleted groundwater sources. AguaClara plants, which treat water for turbidity and pathogens, provide the option to utilize surface water sources where it was not feasible before, thus reducing usage of scarce waters. Treating surface water is also cheaper and safer for the community than removing dangerous contaminants commonly found in groundwater, such as arsenic or fluoride. Due to the lack of affordable municipal-scale treatment options for underdeveloped regions, many communities use Point of Use (PoU) treatment systems in their homes. In practice, PoUs are used to only treat the water used for drinking, leaving users vulnerable during dishwashing, bathing, or other activities. For $1-5 per household per month, AguaClara plants can deliver 100 liters of safe drinking water on tap per person per day. Household distribution further enables families to build facilities to support better hygiene, such as sinks, flush toilets, or showers. By bringing the community into the implementation process, we have also found a solution to handle the greywater generated in homes. One household in a village in India had dug a small trench from their outdoor tap to a garden outside their house. The family used the garden to supplement their nutrition, and they sold the extra vegetables. The extra income often covered the cost of the water tariff.

Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for different stakeholders?

AguaClara Reach provides communities with a long-lasting, climate change-resilient, zero-emissions source of clean drinking water on tap, which has benefits that extend beyond environmental protection, global health, economic development, and women’s empowerment. Facilitating a community to build and manage their water treatment system gives them additional employable skills. Men and women who contribute labor during construction learn masonry, which they use to work in the agricultural off-season. The projects also pave the path for them to solve problems independently. In one community, we learned that an elephant stampede had destroyed most of the tap stand posts in one hamlet. Within a few days, the community rebuilt the distribution network without any assistance from us. Similarly, we saw that when a new operator in one community was confused about the procedure to backwash the filters, he called up the operator in a nearby community who spent time training the new operator.

How is your initiative funded, now and over the next 5 years?

Contract revenue has covered 91% of costs to date, and grants 5%. To make us more financially sustainable, in the next 5 years, we will: 1) Build more institutional partnerships to help us gain access to projects funded by those able to pay for the full cost (direct and indirect) of our training services (e.g. World Bank, USAID, German Development Cooperation, etc). 2) Charge a Design Certification fee for all designs implemented in the field, including those built after we have trained the partner to deploy the systems independently. The fee will be charged on a sliding scale based on the size of the community to minimize barriers to adoption and will help fund program growth. The Certification will act as quality control for our donors.

How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of this edition of the CSV Prize?

We are planning to scale our Hydrodoser technology to over 100 villages in the next 3 years, which will give us the chance to pilot and develop best practices for a community-to-community support program. The program involves Water Boards becoming paying members of an Association, which provides services that we will define with the help of current operators. As part of this program, we envision that high-performing operators will be become circuit riders, or traveling technicians, who will lead semiannual refresher trainings with the operators of member communities and assist with more complex repairs or expansions. The Association would also procure consumables and other inventory in large quantities to save money for member communities.

How will you leverage an investment from Nestle to expand the impact of your work?

Starting in 2005, AguaClara engineers were Cornell alumni who were either paid at local wages directly from project budgets or Fulbright scholars, resulting in low costs but also high turnover and slow growth. Upon founding AguaClara LLC (now AguaClara Reach) in 2013, we priced our services to cover salaries and some overhead. Now we will pursue projects funded by USAID, the World Bank, and similar groups to allow us to price our services to also pay for growth. Thus, we will use the investment to hire 2 new engineers to develop a more comprehensive training program, facilitating efficient project roll-out; and to vet potential partners and establish the institutional relationships required to win projects funded by major aid groups.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact? What’s the projected impact for the coming years? Are you planning to expand your programme into new locations? On what assumptions do you build your scale-up plans?

With $500,000 in new funds, we expect to reach 500,000 people served by AguaClara technologies in 5 years. To achieve this target, we will continually seek new partners in new geographies to train implement our open-source technologies. Because it can take several projects over multiple years to train a partner to deploy AguaClara plants independently, we must vet them to ensure they have strong community mobilization skills, experience building small scale water supply systems, and good relationships with local governments and private donors. By empowering the right local partners, we quickly are able to overcome language, cultural, political, and bureaucratic barriers and see rapid regional spread of the plants. We will also achieve our target by continually collecting feedback from communities, operators, and partners to drive further innovation at Cornell, allowing us to enter new socioeconomic contexts with new technologies and address more water quality problems.

Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, number of full-time vs. part-time staff, board members, etc.)? How will this team evolve as your initiative grows?

May Sharif (Executive Director, full time) spent two years piloting AguaClara technologies in India. One full time Engineer-Trainer is in India training Gram Vikas to scale the Hydrodoser to 150 villages in 3 years. A current Fulbright Scholar is working on a software to automate AguaClara Plant designs. Our board members include a retired Civil Engineer who spent 2 years working on development projects in Cambodia; Dr. Monroe Weber-Shirk, Director of AguaClara Research at Cornell; a former UN Water Specialist; a former Fulbright Scholar who implemented AguaClara technologies in Honduras; and a filtration expert formerly with the Pall Corporation. We wish to expand our board to include more people with international development expertise and to hire two more Engineer-Trainers.

Awards: What awards or honors has the initiative received?

AguaClara Research Program at Cornell University - Intel Tech Award (2011), Katerva Award (2013) AguaClara LLC (for-profit social enterprise and predecessor to AguaClara Reach) - 2nd place RELX Environmental Challenge (2015), B-corp’s Best for the World Overall (2015, 2017)

Organizational leadership: How are you influencing your field of work in the present?

Until now, small communities could only implement household technologies that treat just the water used for drinking, simplistic treatment that does not achieve the minimum standard of water quality, complicated plants with limited longevity, or systems that distribute untreated water. Thus, many believe that low-income communities have no choice but to compromise on quality, quantity, and reliability. We push our stakeholders to adopt the idea that it is not an unnecessary luxury, but rather a basic human right, for small towns and villages to have high quality drinking water on tap in volumes required for all household activities. We demand for our communities what we take for granted -- 24-hour access to safe drinking water on tap.

Should you be successful, please confirm your availability to attend the Ashoka Impact Boot camp and Creating Shared Value Prize Live Pitch Event at the World Water Forum 13-16 March 2018

  • Yes, I am available to attend the events on 13-16 March 2018

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Sydney Gray

This is an interesting model. If it's ever of interest to you, I would suggest contacting the Wandiege Water Company in Kisumu, Kenya. Started and run by Kenyans, it is a peri-urban water company that received a similar start to what it sounds like you're providing on the ground.

They have certainly been valuable advisors and partners for us.