Blog Teaser Image

2011: Claudia Espinoza Reporting From Nepal

Dinosaur Duck and Sweets Day

In the next community where we conducted tests for two days, there was a woman who promoted the use of the filters, simply because she saw the difference that using the KAF had on eliminating her symptoms of Arsenicosis. Needless to say, her filter and that of many others were well-maintained and worked perfectly. It was great to notice this trend also amongst villages we visited later, where people would come up to us to show us their symptoms of Arsenicosis and tell us they are using the filters to help get well.

On a completely different note, we had our first encounter with a creature in that village that is worthy of mention: Dinosaur duck.

Dino Duck

This was definitely the weirdest duck Maclyn and I have ever seen — it breathed as if it were suffocating from an asthma attack and was double the size of a regular duck in the US. Also, due to the interesting prehistoric features in its face, we gave him the nickname "dinosaur duck."

Now to the sweets. We started out the day with one of my favorite treats of all time: Rice Pudding. The ingredients to make rice pudding are very simple: rice + milk + sugar; hence it is very common and popular places of high rice consumption, such as Latin America, Africa and Asia. Therefore, I was sure that Nepal would have a version of rice pudding, and indeed they do — with coconut chunks, cashew nuts and raisins. At my request, we ate it for breakfast many days.

 Cooking khir (rice pudding) at the Porasi guesthouse.



As if that was not enough sugar for the day, we also had a bunch of sugarcane in the field. We were just in time for the sugarcane harvesting.

 Eating sugarcane.

The Cold and Pit Fires

The next fieldwork day was similar to the first, except that we came to know of another interesting reason why some people don't like to use the filters, especially during the winter season: Groundwater is very warm (~ 20 degrees C). During the foggy days ambient temperatures could easily drop below 0 degrees C at night and early morning, so the filtered water always came out cold. Also, even if new groundwater were poured through the filter, on these cold days it would also quickly cool down to about 15 degrees C in about half an hour. Therefore, users would have to wait for the filter water and then heat it up using a local stove to get the same warm water they could get by simply going to the tubewell. I sympathized even though I knew that using tubewell water was unsafe without an arsenic removal mechanism.

Break dancing was Maclyn’s solution to the cold weather issue but in the field we also adopted the local way of staying warm: standing next to one of the many pit fires built by the locals or lighting one ourselves.

 The boys huddling around the fire. (Top left to right) Tirta, Hari, Raju.


We also resorted to layers upon layers of clothing. (I wore four layers under my jacket and leggings under my pants almost every day.)

 All bundled up.

And the Field Work Begins!

Before heading out to our very first village in search for the KAF filters, we stopped by one of the local entrepreneurs to see if we could pick up a KAF sales database to facilitate our filter hunt. Unfortunately, we did not find him in his shop, nor did he have a good database telling where the filters he sold were located. Nonetheless, we had previously compiled a list of villages where some failing filters where found, based on a blanket study conducted by ENPHO in 2004. So we used these villages as a starting point.

During our first village visit we ran into an unexpected surprise. In the arsenic mediation effort, the government had installed municipal and spring taps in villages where the groundwater sources have very high levels of arsenic, so many of the people who had filters no longer used them. In the next village we visited, we realized that many people did not appear to use the filters as often as they claimed; it was pretty obvious that pore water had been sitting in the filters for quite some time. Nonetheless, we had to start somewhere and this was only the beginning of many more interesting social findings.


Our first day of testing! I'm on the spec and Maclyn is titrating for dissolved oxygen.

On a completely different note, after the first day’s work, the boys got some lessons in break dancing from our very own Maclyn. This led to a very nice demonstration of Hari’s “solider dance” and also “martial arts fight” between Maclyn and Hari. What can I say? Boys will be boys.

mac dancingMaclyn break dancing. Picture courtesy of Raju Shrestha.


Raju learning to break dance. Picture courtesy of Raju Shrestha.


Maclyn and Hari playing around. Picture courtesy of Raju Shrestha.

Trip to Teri

At 8:30 a.m. yesterday, we (Maclyn, Raju, Chintu - the ENPHO driver - and I) left Kathmandu headed towards the flatlands of the Teri! The trip turned out to be much more pleasant than I expected. It was a nice and sunny day so we were able to see the valley scenery as we traveled down the “hills” of Nepal. On the way we stopped for lunch and this is where we first encountered THE Traditional, Typical and Everyday meal of the Nepal:

Dhal Bat (aka lentil soup and rice; also known as Taal in Kathmandu, meaning “the plate”)

Traditional Nepali food

Dhal Bahat: Lentil soup, white rice, a potato/veggie stew and some hot sauce


Afterwards, as we continued on our journey to Nawalparasi we also had our first encounter with The Fog. Now, we had previously received a warning from Susan and Tommy that the weather in the Teri is relatively comfortable (low 70s degree F) BUT if The Fog arrives it can get really cold, damp and dark for several weeks before clearing up! I didn’t realize how bad this fog was going to be until we started driving through it and we couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of us!

Driving down into the fogDriving through the lovely fog...


The fog also dropped the daytime temperature down to the 40s and 30s. Lets just say I don’t miss the fog at all.

Our base camp in Nawalparasi was in the town of Parasi, which has a couple of guesthouses. Our accommodations were decent: a bed, bathroom and electricity (but again, only during certain hours of the day/night)! However, there was no heat or hot water. I see myself as a very flexible person that can live without many modern accommodations (at least temporarily), but the one thing I just can’t do without is a warm shower. A little trick I learned in Peru, though, was to request a bucket of boiled water for my showers. Next thing I know, the rest of the team was also requesting and making their own bucket of hot water (aka “tato pani”) for their showers, haha.

Week One in Nepal

We are finally in Nepal! It was a very long journey for Maclyn and I to get here, across many time zones, but we have finally settled down during our first week in Kathmandu. Though this was my first time in Nepal, and in Asia generally speaking, my first impression of Kathmandu was: “Wow, this looks a lot like Lima and Ghana.” With lots of heavy traffic from taxis, cars and motorbikes, as well as concrete buildings, street venders and the wonderful smell of city smog, the world seems like a much smaller place. In addition, these similarities became more apparent when all of the locals assumed I was Indian (thus, more like one of them), rather than a foreigner actually born halfway across the world in Peru.

Claudia and Maclyn

Adjusting to the culture has been pretty easy. Maclyn and I have this routine of buying pastries and/or fruit from some of the local venders by our hotel in the morning as our breakfast and lunch. Later we go out to different restaurants and randomly (but slightly guided by the waiter) pick out some new Nepali foods to try out. Also, the people here are super nice and helpful so it makes the adjusting part very easy. In fact, we started to doubt how such a nice place was ever put in the radar of “high risk countries” until we witnessed a protest, flame torches and all, this past, Thursday night (1/6/11). Slightly concerned, we asked the hotel manager if it was safe for us to go out to eat dinner that night, his words were:

"Oh a group of angry men? Did they have torches? Oh, that’s just a political protest. Just be back by 10pm."

Hahaha, needless to say we are just fine.

As far as work is concerned, we just finished wrapping up the week by setting up our field equipment, calibrating it using standards, and finalizing our field study plan. We will be working directly with Raju and Hari in the field, primarily in the district of Nawalparasi. Raju and Bipin (ENPHO’s director) have been tremendously helpful and that makes us very confident that we will have good results in the field (at least on the people side).

Finally, one interesting thing to note is that available electricity in Nepal has made our visit quite interesting. Kathmandu has a set schedule provided by the government: exactly 13 hours of electricity per day and sometimes only 6! Yet, things could be worse. We are very lucky to have such a great hotel with hot water, complimentary breakfast, heat and even a generator for when the lights go out. Tomorrow, when we finally head out into the field, we will really start to rough it (i.e. no hot water, heat, electricity or internet) for 12-15 days straight! Wish us luck!

About this Blog

<< Return to blog

Nepal is a small country in the Himalayas bordered by China on the north and India on the south, west and east. It has a population of 30 million people and an average GDP per capita of $427.

The drinking water supply in the southern lowland plains, called Terai, is contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic. In 1999, the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering partnered with the Nepala Environment and Public Health Organization to help provide safe drinking water to rural communities of Nepal. A highlight of this partnership was the development and dissemination of the Kanchan Arsenic Filter (KAF) for the low-cost removal of arsenic from drinking water. However, recent studies have demonstrated that the KAF fails to remove adequate amounts of arsenic (below the Nepali government guideline of 50 ug/L) under certain raw water conditions of the Nawalparasi District of Nepal.

M.Eng. students Claudia Espinoza and Maclyn O'Donnell will conduct a three-week study in January 2011 to test 120 different aged KAF systems in this area. They will test and analyze the total arsenic, pH, hardness, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, silica, ferrous iron and total organic matter. They'll then analyze their field and lab data to understand and interpret the KAF’s poor performance under certain extreme conditions, and make recommendations for improving the KAF system design.

Claudia is a 22-year-old from Hartford, Conn., who received her S.B. degree in environmental engineering science from MIT in 2010.