Czech firm helping to address drinking water problems in Peru

Photo: archive of Petr Kvapil

In 2018 the company Photon Water Technology secured a grant from the Czech Development Agency for a project to install water-cleaning facilities in small and medium-sized towns and villages in Peru. I spoke to the company’s managing director, Petr Kvapil, about what the project entails and why they chose to take their know-how to Peru.

Photo: archive of Petr Kvapil
“Peru is a country on the western coast of South America, facing the Pacific Ocean, and around the coast you have the cold Humboldt Current which creates a special climate. Given Peru’s location we would normally expect to find a tropical forest, but due to the Humboldt Current there is a desert. The desert stretches down the whole coast to Chile and 80 percent of the population lives along the coast in these desert areas. The only water they have comes from the Andes. Due to volcanic activity The Andes have a lot of ore which means there is a lot of mining in the region and the intense mining activity causes the contamination of water. The water flows from The Andes through the desert and those rivers are like an oasis. All the people live along the rivers.”

And they use the water for everything….drinking, cooking…

“Yes, they use the water for everything, drinking, cooking, bathrooms, irrigation…everything.”

But it is not drinking water, clearly.

“It used to be cleaner than it is now, but it got worse due to the mining activity which is a growing business in Peru. Mines are contaminating the water with heavy metals. Of course, they are also present there naturally, due to volcanic activity in the past, but mining makes it much worse. And so people in the region do not have access to clean water.”

So they have no choice but to use this water?

Photo: archive of Petr Kvapil
“They have no choice. It is declared as drinking water, but it contains high levels of arsenic and other metals.”

What are the health consequences?

“To put it very simply: the region of Tacna in Southern Peru has the highest incidence of stomach cancer in the world and it is due to this contamination.”

Are the local authorities not doing anything to address the problem?

“In recent years, they are doing more and more. But of course, it is a question of money. There is a lot of money in the mining business. The mines extract gold, silver, copper…”

So are they contributing to water-purification technology?

“There is a law in Peru that allows them to invest in infrastructure in place of taxes, so the mines could invest in this manner. The problem is that in recent years the information has spread that the poor quality of water is due to the mining activity, or at least to a great extent. There is natural contamination of course, but mining makes the problem much worse. So the communities do not want to take money from the mines and thus finding a solution is not easy. There are many political discussions, of course. No politician wants to be photographed next to a mining company representative, but everyone knows where the money comes from and they need the money badly so…. it is still a problem.”

What is the technology that you brought to Peru?

Photo: archive of Petr Kvapil
“There exist many solutions and we are trying to find the most sustainable solution for the communities affected. Of course, everyone would like to see technology which would treat all the water used in households, but that would be really, really expensive. So now we are trying to propagate systems separating water for household use and for drinking. Because for drinking you need just two liters – or say ten liters a day, while for household use, bathrooms and such, you need much more. On the other hand, if there is some contamination in the latter it is not such a big problem. Many communities are receptive to our reasoning and we are now presenting an emergency solution to the problem. This would allow everyone to get enough drinking water and we have launched a pilot project to test it with the help of the Czech Development Agency.”

So you have already installed water-cleaning facilities for people to use?

“That’s right. Last year we installed five small water treatment plants on the main square and in the schools of two small cities.”

Do you mean villages?

“Four thousand people altogether. So these people can come and take clean water for drinking whenever they need.”

How much water do they purify a day?

“These small ones ten liters of clean water per hour.”

That’s not a lot. In fact, it is very little.

Photo: archive of Petr Kvapil
“This is merely a pilot project, a test run that would give them an idea of the solution we are proposing. Also schools were an important target. We installed water treatment facilities in three schools and they provided enough drinking water for all the children, all day. But, as I said, this small unit is just a model that shows the possibilities of such a solution. What we could do on a bigger scale. Now we are holding discussions with many more communities. In fact we signed an agreement on cooperation with the regional government of Tacna and are now preparing a similar project on a commercial basis in view of delivering water treatment plants for all the communities, to be placed on squares, in medical facilities and in schools.”

What about their maintenance once you leave?

“That’s an important point, especially in places where people are not highly educated or capable of operating bigger water treatment plants. Of course, Peru has educated people, chemical engineers who are able to do that, but there are many small villages which need this solution so we focused on very robust technology, based on reverse osmosis, which is very simple and the maintenance needed is just a replacement of filters, cleaning the facility and monitoring it.”

So local technicians can handle this?

“Yes, local technicians can handle this. But there is another problem that we face and that is to do with the attitude of some of the locals. Because they tend to hold the view that water is from God and they should not have to pay for something like water.”

So you – and the government – need to explain why it is dangerous to drink the water in its natural state….

“Exactly. We are organizing workshops for the public, but also for the water authorities showing not just how to operate the unit, but also stressing the importance of water treatment. That activity is also supported by the Czech Development Agency and it helps us a lot.”

Does the campaign reach children, who are particularly vulnerable?

Photo: archive of Petr Kvapil
“Yes, with the help of the regional government we select the most important places where these water treatment plants should be installed and then we go to each community and organize a workshop. We first talk to the mayor and people who influence the local community, they invite people to our workshop via local broadcasts and there we explain everything, demonstrate how to operate the units and so on.”

So the locals decide where these facilities should be placed, where they will be most useful ….

“Of course, of course.”

Would you say you have already got good results somewhere?

“Sure. Everywhere we placed a unit, it made a big impact and we got a very positive reaction and many follow-up communications about having more units placed elsewhere.

Did the time you spent in Peru drive home the message that water is a precious commodity and that we waste a lot of it here?

(Laughs) "It is true that I spent a long time in Peru and I must say that I learnt how to make do with very little water a day!"

Does your work there seem more meaningful when you see how badly it is needed?

"Yes, I have to say that seeing children having good water and enough water makes me happy, and not just me I think!"