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2014 Bangladesh Visit, Part 2 of 2 - Implementation of Lalon Water Filter

posted Dec 22, 2014, 10:39 PM by Thabit Pulak   [ updated Dec 26, 2014, 7:14 PM ]
It's been 2 years since I last came to Bangladesh. This particular visit brought forth the most important developments ever to iKormi as an organization. Taking what we have learned from our last visit, new improvements were made to the filter design, and now, our primary focus was to start up a manufacturing process in Bangladesh, using local materials. It’s been a little late for me to write this blog, however, as I am now a college student attending Duke University. I have many pictures, so using them, I have written this post, giving an overview of this year’s Bangladesh visit. You can view the post for my 2012 Bangladesh visit here: http://www.thabitpulak.com/in-the-news/visittobangladesh

Arrival in Dhaka

My family and I arrived at the Dhaka airport with excitement, if not a bit tired. After all, it was the end of over a 24 hour journey. We went to claim our luggage, and proceeded to exit the airport. However, this time, we were stopped. Apparently, one of our luggage pieces attracted some suspicion- it was the water filter. We had brought a prototype water filter from the US to work on replicating in Bangladesh. The sheer size of the package illicited some unwanted attention. We were instructed to open it. The shape of the filter resembled something in the shape of a big bong, and I sensed the agents being very suspicious of the product. I quickly got out my research journal to show the customs agents that this indeed was, an affordable water filter aimed to help others. This prototype was very important, as it would be the cornerstone of our efforts this summer to get production started. Needless to say, we were quite relieved when the filter was given the green signal.

I stayed in  Dhaka for 4 days, during which I had the opportunity to shadow in Bangladesh's premier heart center, the Ibrahim Cardiac Center. I wrote about my experiences in part 1 of my 2014 Summer in Bangladesh here: http://www.thabitpulak.com/in-the-news/2014bangladeshvisitpart1-ibrahimcardiaccentershadowing 

Presenting the plan

After 4 days of staying in Dhaka, we took a bus to go to Kushtia, where my grandparents and extended relatives lived. This was also where most of my work with water filtration was based. It was important for us to begin the work with the water filter by 

me presenting to local people of authority. I had the chance to meet with a local water engineer , who also happened to be the head of the water infrastructure in Kushtia, Bangladesh (where we we

re working). He was a prominent member of the Poroshoba (the equivalent of a local parliament). He voiced his support for our proposed plans to expand the water filtration work into a practical stage. I was also able to get in touch with even higher end officials in Bangladesh. 

Meeting with a top level political official in Bangladesh

In fact, I was lucky to be able to meet

Mr. Mahababul Alam, who was the former General Secretary of Bangladesh (the equivalent of Vice President) , and is now an acting head of Parliament. He also voiced his support fo the water filtration work, and invited me to the parliament the next time we came near the area!

A visit to the past

From my last visit to Bangladesh two years ago (link was provided in the beginning of this story) , we dropped off the first prototype of our water filter.  We gave it to a family in Bangladesh located in Rajapur, a village in Kushtia. Sumayyah, a girl from the family, helped us throughout the process of implementing the filter in her household. She became a member of iKormi, our non profit organization. She also helped us navigate the rest of Rajapur, which was an area heavily affected by various forms of water contamination, especially arsenic.  After we left Bangladesh, the prototype was still in use. Sumayyah periodically gave us updates on the filter's performance, which was critical in helping us make improvements to the filter's design back in the United States. We learned that the filter, while it had its merits, it also had lots of weaknesses. For one, its flow rate had significantly slowed down after a few months of usage. It was also quite fragile, in that the base actually fractured and had to be repaired later. Taking these occurrences into notice, the design of another, much more improved second prototype filter design was made.

By now, the filter at Sumayyah's home had ceased to operate, due to the restrictive flow rate. I wanted to go back to the home, check it out. Getting back into an electric auto -rickshaw, we made the trip to the village, battling through rough unpaved roads. Finally arriving at the home, it was amazing to see how much had changed since the last time we left. The roads, while still rough, had been improved . And Sumayyah's home had a new member - Sumayyah had recently been married, and given birth to a baby boy! Walking inside the household, I saw the SONO water filter, which we gave to Sumayyah's family alongside the prototype. Directly beside the filter was the prototype. I looked at it for a few moments - beneath the cobwebs that now entangled the filter , it still was quite a beautiful design. Most of us agreed that it was definitely a significant step forward from the bulky 3-bucket setup of the SONO filter. A feeling of excitement came over me- our new design would not only retain the aesthetic refinement of the old filter, but it would functionally outperform it in every metric. In a week or two, Sumayyah would hopefully have a copy of our newly designed filter in her home,  I thought.

Preparations for manufacturing

It was time to get my manufacturing plans on the road. The new filter design was based off a light-weight PVC outer shell. We located a nearby industry called BRB Cables. This company isIn the BRB Cable industries warehouse known for manufacturing a wide variety of products, but our interest in the company stemmed from their plastics manufacturing capacity. We visited the company to see what types of PVC pipes they manufactured. Soon, the perfect pipe was found that matched the prototype design I built back in the US. It had a 10 inch diameter, and was sold in bulk in long lengths. We ordered a few of them. In addition, we hired a BRB employee to come with us to our workspace to help manufacture the filters from the PVC pipe. We were fortunate to not only have the support of donors back in the US, but also of the Sabrina Memorial Foundation (SMF), who gave us a few

Transportation of the empty PVC pipe shells from the BRB Cables via Rickshaw "van"

thousand dollars to start up our work. The SMF is a non profit organization based in Bangladesh which has wide-arching aims in a variety of areas, ranging from providing affordable education in rural areas , to providing healthcare to the poor. My work with affordable water filtration in Bangladesh was this inline with their health work, and thus our partnership was established. The Rickshaw "van"

The PVC pipes were soon arranged to be shipped. A traditional "van" was to deliver the pipes. Don't let the name fool you though - it's not really a van, so to speak . It is basically a pedal-operated rickshaw that is modified to carry cargo instead of passengers, and thus has a flatbed cargo area, resembling the loading bay of a truck, or "van". A foreigner might view this to be quite low tech, but however, it was quite efficient. The pipes showed up to our doorstep just within an hour of ordering. Try doing that with Amazon ;)


Over the next few days, we were making final modifications to our design for the new filter.

Our engineer custom-welding the external pipe to the water filter (made of PVC pipe)

Some things were changed - most of them were actually improvements to the design that we initially designed back in the United States. For example, the external pipe which led purified water away from the filter to the user was much more simplified.It initially consisted of multiple pipes fitted with joints, but in Bangladesh, it turned out that we could make a single custom pipe that was "heat-shaped" into the design.

Cutting a long PVC pipe to make not filter-sized segments

This would not only reduce the maintenance of the filter and chance for break-down, but also it would cut down the overall costs of the filter. It turned out that making a custom diffuser (to slow the flow of water) was cheaper than simply using a porous basket of some sort (which is what we used in the US). I was amazed at the incredible resourcefulness of Bangladesh in general - making a custom-anything would cost tons of money in the US, and in some cases, would probably be impossible.

Top diffuser lid, custom crafter for this filter

With our design plans finalized, work was quickly started. The long PVC pipes that were brought from the BRB cables industries was cut into precise 4 foot lengths to make the body of the filter.Our hired engineer then 

worked to make the diffusers, and the external pipe. 

To finish the filter off, we added a "cap". The finished product was quite beautiful - a sleek, slender pipe, with a green outpipe, and redcap. The colors matched the Bangladesh Flag, which is mostly green, with a red dot in the middle. Of course, the body would probably be smoothed down to get rid of the spots that came on it during manufacturing, but it was still quite a sight :)

But the work wasn't yet done. This was just the shell of the filter- the inner media wasn't yet prepared. I had ordered a large shipment of locally available "Sylhet Sand" to be used in the filters. This was a type of sand which had very small grains, which would physically "trap" various pathogens and bacterias (this concept comes from Biosand filtration technology, which was originally designed by CAWST, founded by David Manz. More on this can be found here: Cleaned sand, ready to put in filtershttp://www.cawst.org/en/resources/biosand-filter)  . The sand also had a very high natural content of iron, which would remove arsenic from the water. Our filter would be the first of its kind to be implemented in Bangladesh with such a design. We hired as few local residents to help clean the sand to get rid of excess dirt to prevent clogging up of the filter. Very soon, the work was done.

With the sand matter ready , and the filter shell also complete, it was time to load the sand into the filter. With the help of a few iKormi volunteers, we began to load the first filter. As our filter incorporated many of the concepts of the Biosand filter, we followed some guidelines set forth by CAWST, the organization which originally developed the Biosand filter. Essentially, you don't want to "dump" the sand inside the filter - that would clog up the water flow, since the sand would be so packed together. Instead, the filter should be initially about a third with water, and then sand would slowly be poured in. As the sand is poured in, another person would "swirl" the

Swirling the sand
IKormi volunteer Shojib helping to swirl the sand while loading the filter
water, so the sand would land in the filter softly. Ultimately, the sand needs to not be packed together, but rather be somewhat "suspended" in the middle of the filter, due to the water keeping the particles in motion. Despite this being our first time loading the filter, it took us a surprisingly short 45 minutes to finish loading the filter. The filter was done. We all took a sigh of relief - it was pretty tiring. It was also a humbling moment - it took a full month's worth of work - including preparing, designing, and arranging for materials and workers, to all come together, to make this filter. It definitely wasn't as easy as it looked. 
Water being test-run through water filter

But of course, the defining moment hadn't yet come - we needed to run a batch of water through the filter, to see if the flow rate was right. One of the volunteers, Kanak, came with a batch of water from the outdoor water well. I dumped the bucket on top of the diffuser, and then we all waited in anticipation. Sure enough, the water started trickling out of the filter output pipe. It was Looking at the clean water form the filtera steady, and strong flow rate. We measured it to be about 800 ml per minute - a great output. I then dipped a glass cup inside the bucket which was collecting the purified water, and looked at it. It was crystal clear. Everyone was amazed -

the input water from the water well was heavily iron-contaminated, which lent to an orange-ish color when observed in a drinking glass. Simply running it through this filter, and seeing the iron being removed was quite a sight. Although we still had some work to do - this filter had to be run with arsenic water and tested from removal, and also some bacterial tests had yet to be done with contaminated samples, the initial results were definitely promising.

Final Meeting

My month's stay was at an end - there was only 1 day left before I had to leave Kushtia for Dhaka (where the airport was) after our first batch of filters were made. In Dhaka, I would spend one more day before we were to fly out back to the United States.

Meeting with members to facilitate continuing this work
It was fitting to have a meeting with the iKormi members present that night, shortly after we made our first water filter. We sat in a circle, reflecting on our experiences that month, working together to make the product happen. The significance of this month was huge- we were able to successfully start-up a water filter manufacturing process, using local materials. Such a process would prove to be a very sustainable way to distribute water filters throughout Bangladesh.

We discussed our next steps - we still had a long way to go before we start marketing such filters to Bangladesh in a large scale. We planned for our initial batch of filters to go to various 

households in Rajapur, where we would distribute them to households that drank from highly-contaminated arsenic wells, or had high incidence of bacterial contamination. We would provide the first filter to Sumayyah's family, who by now, were very skilled and adept at providing us vital information on how the filters worked. 

As the filters are distributed, iKormi volunteers will periodically visit the field sites to test filter samples for arsenic and bacterial contamination, such as from E. Coli. As I would be in the United States, we all arranged for a consistent stream of communication between Bangladesh and the US. This would take the form of bi-weekly meetings via Skype.

We concluded the meeting with our good-wishes to one-another, and final words. It was a solemn moment - one that signified the amazing things to come, but also the sadness of leaving such a great community.

Time in Dhaka- Meeting with Dr. Munshi Mahbub

Our head office in Dhaka, BangladeshWe boarded a bus to Dhaka, where after 1 day, my family and I was going to board a plane back
to the US. However, in our time at Dhaka, we were extremely fortunate to have the support of one of the Advocate Lawyers of the Supreme Court in Bangladesh

With board members in Bangladesh. His name was Dr. Mushi Mahbub. He

heard of the work that we were doing, and was very supportive of it, and was eager to help us in any way he could. We realized that his expertise with the corporate and nonprofit law in Bangladesh would be of great help to us, and thus we included him as part of iKormi, functioning as our executive secretary. We discussed with him the process of trademarking our water filter. He pointed us in the right direction on our next steps, which we duly noted. And then, the most unexpected show of generosity came when he offered us his office as being the representative headquarters of iKormi. This was big news, as getting such an office in Dhaka, Bangladesh was incredibly difficult, amidst high costs, and limited space. We thanked him for his incredible show of support. He wished us all the best for our travels back home.

Leaving home, for home

My grandparents came to Dhaka to see me off, as did my uncles, Shojib and Kanak. My cousins, Shiam, and Samin, also came. A surprise person to come was my friend Casey Meeting with another Duke student at the airportWilliams, who was a recent alum of Duke University (where I study). He was in Bangladesh as part of a year-long study on climate change, funded by the university. I thanked Casey for coming so far to see me, and after we conversed for a few minutes, we bade farewell.

 And then came the the hardest part of my travels to Bangladesh - saying goodbye to my family. Our flight time was fast approaching, and we knew that we had to eventually walk towards the security check to catch our flight. Many hugs and kisses were exchanged, amidst tearful displays of goodbyes. I, being a manly 18 years old, tried, but failed to keep the tears in. We promised to keep in touch - we all had Facebook, right?  

As my family and I passed through the security check of the airport , we turned around to wave goodbye to our family, who now stood as small specs amidst a crowd of other people waving goodbye to their family members as well. We waved until they saw us, and with their final waves, we slowly turned towards the terminal, and walked towards our gate. We were leaving home, for home.

Selected Photos from the Summer of 2014 in Bangladesh Trip

Summer of 2014 in Bangladesh