Sustainable and Innovative Solution to Provide Safe Drinking Water to Remote Communities on Navajo Nation

Self-sufficient solar water treatment system providing affordable, safe drinking water for Navajo people living with no water & power supply

Photo of Ilse Rojas
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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

Painted Desert Demonstration Projects Inc. (The STAR School)

Year founded


Initiative stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Annual budget in 2017 (USD)

  • $100k - $250k

Number of beneficiaries impacted so far

  • 250 - 500

Organization type

  • Nonprofit, NGO, or citizen sector

Secondary Focus Area

  • Rural development
  • Nutrition

Headquarters location: Country

  • United States of America

Headquarters location: City

Flagstaff, Arizona

Location(s) of impact

United States: Navajo Nation


Facebook URL

Twitter URL


Problem: What problem is this initiative trying to address?

Navajo Nation (NN) is the largest Native American Reservation in U.S. where 30-50% of the population lives with no power and water supplies. Many unregulated water sources are contaminated. Over 50% of the people on NN have diabetes which is largely related to excessive intake of sugary drinks instead of water due to the poor quality of the water. NN is also economically challenged. Nation has an unemployment rate of 40-50%. Poverty rate is as high as 38%. Over 19% of the people are classified as “severely poor".

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

We are a group of people who make changes. STAR School created unique partnerships with AATech, NLFF and a few local Chapters to develop an innovative community based solution to address the critical water issues, while creating needed jobs and businesses on NN. Major innovative and effective dimensions are: 1. Innovative technology built to address the unique situations on NN. AATech has developed a self-sufficient, fully solar powered water treatment system (patent pending) to be installed at the well sites producing drinking water for the locals. The system is fully automatic. 2. Decentralized solution proved to be more cost effective compared with centralized approach due to the low population density (<10 ca./sq. mi.) on NN. An estimated of $5 -7.5M will be sufficient to provide safe and affordable drinking water for 2,500–5,000 Navajos. 3. Meanwhile, STAR School is developing a water education center aimed at growing local workforce, creating jobs and businesses.

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

Currently, 50,000+ people on NN have no access to public water system. With very low population density, it requires multi-billion US dollars and decades to connect all the people, if it ever happens. We have developed 3 demonstration water treatment systems. Each produces 500-1,000 gal/day to meet 50-100 people's daily drinking water needs. We will build two more systems in 2018. Then, we can provide water for 250-500 people. First phase of our program is to develop 50 systems at the strategic locations designed to provide safe drinking water for 2,500-5,000 Navajos at a much lower cost than bottled water. Goal is to provide safe drinking water for all remote living Navajos. The treatment system effectively removes the color, taste as well as harmful contaminants, such as As and Ur. The program also provides on-going education to thousands of Navajo youth and adults encouraging them to drink fresh water instead of sugary drinks. Social impact will be monitored closely.

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

The first 3 years (FY16-18) have been funded by USDA Rural Development. The program was awarded a total of $290K from USDA’s Water & Waste Disposal Technical Assistance Grant. Fund is used to demonstrate the water treatment technologies, sponsor community outreach, public education and strategic planning efforts to improve the quality of lives in NN. For long-term operation, the O&M costs of the program will be covered by system leasing or water sales. Currently, STAR school sells untreated well water to community for $0.02/gal. Assuming the purified water is sold for $0.05-$0.1/gal (average bottle water costs $1.22/gal), 50 systems will generate revenue of $500K to $1.8M per year. 1. Individual donations: 25% 2. Grants: 75% 3. Corporate contributions: 0% 4. Earned income: N/A

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

As a Changemaker School, STAR School - a small community school- is delivering superior education and community impact. It is the first all off-grid solar & wind powered public school in the U.S. Water is among the most critical issues for NN. For the program, AATech invented a fully solar powered and completely automatic water treatment system to remove taste, smell, salt, and other harmful contaminants from typical groundwater, providing safe and affordable drinking water on the Reservation.

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

This initiative was motivated by the increasing diabetes threat on NN. At the beginning, the School allowed kids to bring their own lunch. Nobody brought water. Everybody brought soda. When we looked at the situation among elders and adults, water wasn’t the preferred drink. They didn’t like the taste, color or smell. In 2015, working closely with AATech, we received a water/waste disposal grant from USDA. The School and AATech evaluated the issue and came up the idea of filtering water, not only to remove the color, taste and smell, but also salts and other harmful contaminants. Our goal is to make water safer, more palatable and affordable to drink. We are building/installing self-sufficient water treatment modules at remote sites to produce safe drinking water at a more affordable price. The water treatment module is fully automatic requiring minimal human attention.

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

The program is being developed within the beneficiaries’ community and by the community. It is led by the STAR School, a Native American charter school. Main activities include: 1. Develop Water Purification Sites in NN. - local community (Navajo Chapters) must authorize the work before a system can be installed at their well sites. This activity will be done by AATech, STAR School, and a local contractor. It takes 3 months to physically develop a site. Multiple sites can be developed simultaneous. 2. Establish Local O&M Team – A service crew will be developed and managed by the STAR School. Skilled workers will be recruited and trained locally. The O&M staff will check each system once a week, repair and replace parts as needed. 3. Provide Technical Assistance and Training – On-going technical assistance and training will be provided by AATech. 4. Provide Water Delivery Service – This service will be provided to the Navajo residents who have no means to transport water. Water will be delivered once a week either by STAR School or local Chapter. 5. Provide Outreach and Public Education – The project team will continue to educate public, teach basic knowledge about water and the impact of water quality to human health, while promoting a healthy water diet. This program provides a holistic solution to solve the pressing water issue in NN, the largest Native American reservation in U.S. It is a solution developed in the community and for the community.

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.

Water is vital to human life. While ~70% of the earth is covered by water, only <0.02% is available for 6.8 billion people. Water purification technology (“squeeze” more freshwater out from global water inventory) becomes increasingly critical. Water scarcity is among the most serious long-term challenges for NN. Over 20,000 Navajo households are not connected to central power and/or water distributions relying on individual water sources and off-grid powers. Past uranium mining led to groundwater contamination of elevated levels of radiation, together with unhealthy diet/lifestyle, contributing to extremely high rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, hyper tension and other water/food related diseases on the reservation. We tackle this long-term issue in sustainable water resource management and broadening access to safe drinking water for people who live with no running water and commercial power by: -Increase the availability/access to clean water thru innovative technology and renewable energy -Enhance water use efficiency by integrating safe drinking water solution with local food production (gardening & livestock) and use of graywater in residential houses -Reduce water cost greatly for people already in poverty -Improve community health and self-reliance by promoting healthy water, food & lifestyle -Create jobs/businesses, stimulate economic development in rural communities that are in severe poverty. Provide job training for Navajo youth to create lasting results.

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

Our program creases shared-value to: Navajo youth, local communities, Navajo County, NN & U.S. Fed. Government: -Produce well trained workforce for the business & community. Children are the future. Navajo youth will learn hands-on skills to solve real world problem for their people -Create jobs/businesses, stimulate the rural economy & increase tax revenue for local people, NN, and Fed. Gov. -In addition to improving the quality of life, the program inspires positive energy & give people hope. We have and will continue to set a successful example showing what can be done to make lasting changes to the community. -Alleviate the political/financial pressure on the tribal & Fed. Gov. to solve the pressing issue for the people whose lives are compromised by drinking unregulated water. -Medical care is expensive. For a person diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, the lifetime direct medical cost is $54.7K - $130K. NN & IHS will eventually see reduced heath care cost due to less sick people.

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

Started in 2015, the program initially focused on technical assistance, training and demonstration. The majority of the funding is from USDA RD. Currently, STAR School sells untreated water to the community. The business concept is well received locally. Next year, we hope to set up a pilot program to demonstrate the finance viability with treated water. In the next 5 years, in addition to grant, we will work more actively with private foundations and try to increase water sales. AATech has filed a non-provisional patent for the technology (No.15/799,891). After the patent is approved, we will start working with investors to expedite the development. In the future, we anticipate water sales will cover 100% of the business operation.

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

STAR School was selected as one of the global Changemaker Schools by Ashoka Foundation in 2014. We are committed to working closely with Ashoka, Nestle, and others to expand the influence & impact in our field and the communities, which will benefit from our model. We will use the CSV prize to: 1) Leverage additional fund to a total of $800K-$1.2M. 2) Establish 8-10 production sites with the completely automatic, solar powered water purification systems, producing 8000–10,000 gals/day purified water. 3) Purchase water delivery truck(s) and associated equipment and supplies. Water will be delivered in 5-gallon glass jars. The jars will be reusable to reduce the environmental impact. And 4) Cover the start-up costs of the water enterprise.

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

The investment from Nestle/Ashoka will be used as seed money to attract and leverage for additional funding from both public & private funding sources at a minimum of $1 to $1 matching. In some cases, it may be $1 to $3 matching. In another word, the CSV prize of $400K will generate a total of $800K-$1.2M impact. STAR School has already been working with USDA, Newman’s Own Foundation, Notah Begay III Foundation, First Nations Development Institute & will expand to NN, US EPA, Novo Foundation & other public or private resources. We also collaborate with other Native Americans communities & local organizations (e.g. WMG) that share common goals, objectives & values to further expand the impact of our program nationally & internationally.

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?

Our water purification technology is modular & highly scalable. The ultimate goal is to provide safe drinking water to everyone who lives in a house with no access to water and power distributions. We will scale the impact by: -Completing Phase I of the program with 50 water purification sites, one service crew, and 1-2 water delivery trucks in the SW of the NN in the first 5-6 yrs. -Developing new partners, additional O&M crews, and expand the program to the north and east NN in future phases. -Technology licensing. The proposed technology is being examined by U.S Patent Office. After the technology is patented, we will allow other groups/companies to use our technology through licensing. -AATech will provide continued technical assistance and training to the O&M staff and the groups who license the technology. -We will work closely with NN Water Resources & NN Utility Authority, and other agencies to update/modify the policies related to water use & water quality control.

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?

The program is overseen by the governing Board of STAR School, composed of: Dr. Mark Sorensen (President), Mr. Thomas Walker, Mr. Rick St. Germaine, and Mrs. Evelyn McCabe. Dr. Mark Sorensen is also the Program Director responsible for the entire program. Dr. Jing Luo, PE, Vice President of AATech is the Assistant Program Director overseeing the technical aspects of the program. Dr. Ilse Rojas - AATech Project Engineer in charge of project management. Mr. Peter Zhou, PE – AATech Electrical Engineer in charge of technology development. Mr. Thomas Walker – STAR School, in charge of community outreach. So far, all the employees are working part time on the program. With the further development , we will recruit full-time staff and maintenance workers mostly from local communities.

Awards: What awards or honors has the initiative received?

2017, featured on National Native TV News broadcasted in 25 states 2017, featured in a cover story of “Arizona Republic” 2014, STAR School was selected by the Ashoka Foundation as one of their global Changemaker Schools 2013, in 41 most Innovative Schools in the country-Noodle (educational research group) 2013, in "25 Coolest Schools" in U.S.

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

We set clear goals to: provide assistance resolving pressing water issues in underserved areas that have high rate of waterborne disease and no running water; raise public awareness of the importance of water safety/security by improved water quality control. We lead by example. We hope the success of this program will set a change-making example thru. collaboration, innovation, & perseverance. There is no conventional technology for the water issue in NN. So we took an innovative approach, developed a new technology. It’s not easy, but we made it work. Featured in many news media, our story is expected to inspire more people work together making the world a better place. AATech also works in Tohono O'odham, San Carlos Apache tribes, etc.

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


Join the conversation:

Photo of Maysoon Sharif

Hey, I'd love to talk to you to learn more about the needs of the NN. Also, are you interested in branching out to new technologies? Check us out at AguaClara Reach - empowering communities to own and operate gravity-powered water treatment plants 

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