Solar Power Brings Clean Water to Remote Mexican Village

In a remote Mexican village on the Yucatan peninsula, residents are drinking clean water thanks to the power of the sun.


La Mancalona is a small community made up of mostly beekeepers and subsistence farmers, and much of their water comes from collecting rain. There are also wells to draw from, but the underground water table is brackish and unsuitable for drinking. Without a purification or desalination system in place, the community had no reliable access to safe drinking water except to buy it in bottles. Seeing an opportunity to help, a team from MIT engineered and installed a solar-powered water filtration system for La Mancalona.

The filtration system is a photovoltaic-powered reverse osmosis system, or PVRO. It’s powered by two solar photovoltaic panels which generate enough electricity to run a set of pumps, which then force water through semi-permeable membranes in a process known as reverse osmosis. The membranes are able to filter out particles and microorganisms, rendering the water safe for drinking. More importantly, this filtration process can remove salt, making the community’s brackish well water fit to drink. The setup is able to produce a thousand liters of clean drinking water for La Mancalona’s 450 residents every day.

Local Ownership

Once an aid organization identified La Mancalona as a good site for a PRVO project, MIT sent a team there with the equipment. Adding to the difficulty of setting up complex equipment in a rural setting, residents there speak a local dialect that varies greatly from standard Mexican Spanish. Aid workers were needed on site to translate instructions from English to Spanish to the local dialect, and back again.

One of the core aspects of the plan was to make the project self-sustaining: despite the complexity of the system, the community needed to be able to run the PVRO and absorb the cost of running it. While the design worked in a laboratory setting, this was the first time it was used in the field. MIT’s Huda Elasaad worked with them, training them in operation and maintenance of the new filtration system, and found them to be eager and capable. They’re currently in charge of the system; they change out the filters, replace batteries, and with a local supplier for replacement parts, they don’t need MIT’s continued presence. MIT’s Stephen Dubowsky described the entire project in a paper submitted to the journal Desalination in November 2015, where he concluded that PVRO clean water is a viable approach, both economically and practically, for rural communities with sufficient sunlight.

The filtration system has become a business opportunity for the village, too: they sell the filtered water for 5 pesos a bottle, approximately one tenth of the cost of bottled water from outside. The entire community agreed on the price, and the funds are used to maintain the system, with extra money getting reinvested in the community. They have plans to increase their capacity in the future, to sell water to tourists and bring in even more money to improve their lives.

Photo credit Rick Gonzalez via Flickr under Creative Commons license

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