Tuesday 9 February 2021. I arrive at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City armed with a small suitcase and bright orange rucksack packed with the essential items I expect to need to start my new life in Central America.
Tired, but fuelled by the energy of countless airline sandwiches, I make my solitary way to a small shop with the aim of buying a SIM card, hoping that the Mexican accent and phraseology will be intelligible to me. After a successful transaction and with a fresh SIM inserted in my phone, I feel encouraged and already more connected as I head towards the taxi stand and disappear into the folds of the world’s fifth largest city.
Five months on, I am sitting in my small studio apartment in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where I have been working as a Technical Fellow at Caminos de Agua, a non-profit organisation which aims to improve human health and community well-being through adequate and affordable access to clean water in central Mexico. This is essential work here owing to the worsening issues of water scarcity and contamination in the region, due in large part to the high water demands of the powerful agro-industry which principally grows crops to export to the United States. This is happening at a time when the population in the region is constantly rising because of its cache as a desirable destination for immigration and holiday homes. The local government’s hesitation in recognising this issue, prioritising other enterprises instead, only compounds the crisis. This takes its toll primarily on the rural communities who find their access to water to be constantly diminishing and their voices often unheard. I invite the reader to visit the Caminos de Agua website to learn more about these issues and the work that they are doing in order to help. I will focus here on the small part that I am playing in the organisation and how I got here.
After graduating with an MEng in Chemical and Energy Engineering from the University of Birmingham in 2016, I entered the UK civil nuclear industry where I worked both in environmental and process engineering roles on a large nuclear power station construction project. Throughout the following five years I nursed ideas of moving abroad to Latin America and also felt a pull to direct my engineering work towards humanitarian and environmental goals. This was finally realised in 2021 with my move to join Caminos de Agua and work on the development of a groundwater treatment pilot system to test the viability of purifying water from local wells in order for rural communities to be able to safely drink from them. The engineering philosophy appealed to me, that of developing everything using low cost, locally accessible materials and publishing all findings as open-source documents available to other similar projects worldwide.
The technology is principally aimed at removing arsenic and fluoride which are the key contaminants in the region and present serious health risks in terms of cancers and dental/skeletal issues respectively. This removal is achieved using a series of adsorption columns filled with media which are designed to attract the target contaminant particles thus separating them from the water. In the case of fluoride separation, the media in question is made from bone-char coming from crushed, pyrolised animal bones (a waste product) produced in-house by Caminos de Agua and a good example of how accessible materials can be utilised effectively in order to achieve life changing results. The ultimate goal is to standardise this technology and implement it on a larger scale in cooperation with multiple communities in order to provide an alternative to the contaminated well water or expensive bottled water which are currently the only two options available.
My time here thus far has been full of learning experiences ranging from improving my linguistic skills to familiarising myself with adsorption chemistry to asking street food vendors about their family recipes. I have found the experience to be extremely enriching in numerous ways and would encourage any reader to consider the possibility of doing similar work, to look beyond the standard employers for their sector and think about alternative ways in which their education, skills and experience could be put to good use.