Fermín is democratizing access to potable water in rural Mexican communities using technologies and community models that provide access to low-cost, high-quality drinking water. Fermín’s ultimate goal is to allow everyone in these communities constant access to potable water while empowering community members with ownership and quality control of their water sources.
The New Idea
Fermín is addressing insufficient access to potable water by confronting the environmental, social, and economic causes of this problem. Fermín’s model improves the health and welfare of thousands of people in rural Mexican communities by providing them with access to potable water. The model has three primary innovations; it democratizes water, couples water provision with interventions that address other social and health problems in the community, and allows for communities to continue producing potable water indefinitely because of its financially self-sustainable design. Democratization of water refers to empowering community members to have total control over access to and quality of water. Meanwhile, the water provision technologies explicitly target health and economic ills generated by consuming dirty water. Finally, the economic model that Fermín proposes allows for community members to benefit financially and sustainably from these potable water systems.
Cántaro Azul democratizes water ownership by empowering communities to collect, purify, monitor, and sell their own potable water. Access to potable water is a legal right in Mexico, yet many citizens in rural areas lack access to this resource. Cántaro Azul is therefore returning potable water production capabilities to rural communities. Cántaro Azul’s communities differ from most other communities in Mexico because they are not dependent on any external water provider. Cántaro Azul’s program allows them to create totally self-sufficient potable water systems.
Fermín is also partnering with local health and education institutions to ensure that access to potable water in partner communities is economically feasible, widespread, and available everywhere at any time. Cántaro Azul understands that potable water is useless if there are still contaminated sources used in the community, so the organization aims to create a network of potable water sources. The ultimate goal is for community members to consume potable water everywhere all of the time. Cántaro Azul has different technology for each of the two consumption levels, family units and community consumption. Family units use the “Mesita Azul” (“Little Blue Table”) model while the “Nuestra Agua” (“Our Water”) model is used for more large-scale, community consumption. Both models are designed as economically sustainable solutions that allow local entrepreneurs to enter the water purification market.
Nuestra Agua is a social franchise for potable water production that makes use of each community’s human capital so that economic benefits from potable water sales accrue to the community instead of to external water providers. This approach attacks water provision problems in a way that generates income in the communities while embedding knowledge about potable water production in the community consciousness. With support from major academic and developmental institutions, Fermín has developed a holistic model that ensures the sustainability of its franchise system. Nuestra Agua also makes sure that the profits from potable water sale remain within the local economy, thus empowering people to take control of their own enterprises and their region’s natural resources.
Access to potable water has been a constitutional right in Mexico for years, yet 12% of the Mexican population consumes unclean water every day. In some rural states of the country the percentage is as high as 58%. Approximately 5 million people have no access to potable water in the five rural states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Veracruz alone. Limited access to potable water is partially a result of unequal water network distribution which disregards poor communities in rural areas. Even in areas where there are water networks, these networks operate intermittently and water quality often does not meet the standards necessary for human consumption. Intermittent network operation causes the infiltration of microorganisms during periods of low water pressure and forces users to store water for long periods of time, increasing the probability of further contamination. These factors contribute to national overestimation of potable water network coverage.
Despite government efforts to increase water quality through wider network coverage, the number of water sources contaminated by human settlements, agricultural inputs, industrial waste, or mining activities is increasing each year. This contamination of natural resources and water sources forces citizens to be dependent upon external water sources. Water is the most basic human resource needed for survival, so dependence of this sort can be life threatening. Low water quality, inadequate management of potable water infrastructure, and unequal distribution of water networks have excluded a portion of the Mexican population from access to safe drinking water. This is especially true in poor, rural regions in the northwest and south of the country. In communities reached by water distribution and purification networks, these networks are often privately owned and charge prohibitive, high prices that exclude the poor. The lack of competition in the water purification sector is thus another force that excludes the rural poor from access to clean water.
Lack of access to potable water and hygiene education are the primary causes of diarrheal diseases in rural Mexico. Approximately to 20% of Mexican children under 5 years of age suffer from diarrheal and gastrointestinal diseases. These diseases have devastating effects on child mortality and morbidity. They are also responsible for 50% of infant malnutrition, stunted development, and poor cognitive growth. The Mexican government has created several programs to facilitate water decontamination at the household level, but these programs do not make use of appropriate technologies. Instead, the government programs incentivize families to either boil their water or disinfect it with chlorine. The adoption rate of these methods is negligible; the former uses traditional stoves that have high fuel costs and dangerously trap smoke indoors while the latter leaves water with an unpleasant taste. Another option, purchasing 20-liter water jugs for household consumption, is economically unfeasible for most families and takes money out of the already struggling local economies. The end result is that many impoverished families simply drink contaminated water and suffer the health consequences.
Poverty underlies all water issues because those who cannot pay for water services are excluded from access to potable water. Unemployment and underemployment are significant issues in rural Mexico that result in widespread poverty. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that when community members pay for traditional water distribution network access, that money leaves the community and goes directly to the water network corporations. There is also a lack of local technical knowledge and expertise regarding water purification processes. Impoverished rural communities are thus left without access to potable water, without the economic development that could be facilitated by potable water sale, and without the technical knowledge to address these issues.
A primary tenet of Cántaro Azul’s ideology is returning water ownership and access to community members. Fermín has developed a process that makes this possible and helps all community members consume clean water all the time. The technology that Fermín designed purifies water in a way that is acceptable to target communities and is easy for beneficiaries to manage. Cántaro Azul offers the community this technology and a model of water distribution that gives management responsibility to either families, entrepreneurs, or schools. With this responsibility comes the opportunity to make a living out of distributing potable water locally. The goal is to reach the human right to consistently safe water and to increase health in the community.
Cántaro Azul’s intervention strategy begins with identifying a community that does not have access to potable water but has a reliable water source. The organization next decides what type of distribution process is appropriate for the community. Cántaro Azul offers two different types of technology that come with different distribution models. The Mesita Azul is the in-home water purification system meant for family use. Nuestra Agua is a kiosk water purification model. The kiosk operator can be a local entrepreneur willing to own and operate his or her own business (50% of franchises), a health or educational institutional manager from the community (20%), or a community committee selected to jointly manage the franchise facility (30%). This model purifies larger quantities of water and Cántaro Azul trains operators in necessary technical skills for water purification, entrepreneurship, and business models.
Next, Cántaro Azul determines the demographic and hydrologic characteristics of the community in order to provide a purification system suitable for its unique features. The designs of the Mesita Azul and Nuestra Agua systems are largely fixed, but they can be modified to better fit local needs. The chosen technology usually includes sand, carbon, and ultraviolet light filters that are combined to make up the water filtration system. These efficient, low-cost technologies are designed by Nuestra Agua’s team. The community layout also influences the organization’s decision about the proportion of Mesita Azul units to install in comparison with kiosk units. For examples, a community in which households are very far from one another would benefit more from Mesita Azul units than kiosk units.
Between 2010 and 2011, in collaboration with UC Berkeley researchers, the finalized version of the household Mesita Azul was evaluated through a randomized impact evaluation in 24 rural communities, comprising approximately 450 households. The results showed significant reductions in the percentage of households with contaminated water as measured by presence of (E. coli). Cántaro Azul’s intervention increased the percent of households with access to safe drinking water by approximately 40 percentage points, giving a total of 61% of the population access. This increase in access to safe water was driven primarily by the adoption of Mesita Azul in 68% of households, 51% of whom still had access to safely stored Mesita Azul drinking water during follow‐up visits.
Cántaro Azul recognizes that access to potable water at a low cost is not enough to eradicate the severe gastrointestinal diseases that greatly impact rural communities in Mexico and beyond. The organization therefore has a multipronged approach meant to optimize the benefit provided by water purification units. Even one contaminated water source in a community significantly reduces the impact of installing water purification sources because it only takes one sip of contaminated water to make a person sick. The organization therefore partners with local institutions to facilitate a widespread, community understanding of the importance of potable water from an ecological and health perspective. These partnerships couple the technicalities of the potable water initiative with community-wide hygiene education and environmental awareness efforts. Cántaro Azul’s hygiene education courses in local schools promote hand washing and other important habits that enhance the benefits of drinking safe water, thus arming community members with information that will incentivize upkeep of the newly installed water purification systems. The organization’s environmental awareness initiatives make sure that the community, especially the youth, develops an understanding of water ecology and its importance in a world with limited and diminishing resources.
In line with its commitment to culturally appropriate interventions, Cántaro Azul addresses the issue of gender inequality and community cohesion by encouraging female ownership (50-75% among individual owners) and community committee ownership of kiosks (30% of all kiosks). In addition to the household and kiosk models, Cántaro Azul provides additional water filters suitable for schools, medical centers, and community centers. These different technologies are accompanied by an organization-wide focus on female empowerment and education.
In order to cater to rural Mexicans with extremely low incomes and great difficulty accessing conventional financial tools and credit opportunities, Cántaro Azul provides the kiosk franchise owners with a microloan to acquire the kiosk, receive appropriate training, and pay for the initial operational costs. In 2 to 3 years, Cántaro Azul recuperates this initial investment from the franchiser owner, who can then make an attractive profit from the management of his/her own enterprise. While the loan is being paid back, a kiosk operator makes about $5 MXN (about 40 cents in USD) for every 20-liter water jug sold. Of this, $1 MXN goes to on loan repayment, $1 MXN to operational and maintenance costs, $1 1MXN to the franchise charge used to provide other entrepreneurs with microloans for water kiosks, and $2 MXN goes to labor and profits. Once the original loan is repaid, marginal profits from the sale of potable water increase significantly.
Fermín’s initiative also involves a series of franchise mechanisms that help the owner profit while providing low-cost, safe water to the community. There is a price ceiling of $5 MXN for a 20-liter water jug, which helps Cántaro Azul ensure an attractive profit for the kiosk operator and provides potable water at roughly 20% of the market price. The price ceiling incentivizes the sale of larger volumes of purified water. Cántaro Azul also guarantees high quality kiosk water by training personnel to carry out monthly water quality checkups, which are then published for the community to see. The people of the community, who have been trained to interpret these quality checkups, are then able to determine the value of their water.
Cántaro Azul’s team is comprised of regional managers, scientists, university advisors, and strategic allies from organizations such as the United Nations. These strategic alliances between the public, private, and social sectors make discussing lack of access to potable water a priority at the global, national, regional, and community level. Cántaro Azul is also involved in public policy efforts to establish the potable water problem as part of a larger, national discussion about public health.
Cántaro Azul’s collaboration with public policy actors is key to the organization’s future plans. Even the public water networks are contaminated in Mexico, making access to clean water 24 hours a day extremely expensive. Cántaro Azul therefore plans to provide its services to communities with access to public water networks as well. This would require partnership with local governments in order to equip the organization’s water purification technologies with alarms that would alert users as to whether or not the filtration device is working. The alarm would be an extra check so that no community member ingests unclean water.
Going forward, Cántaro Azul plans to pilot a number of new filtration and community engagement models. Cántaro Azul is developing a service model for distributing the Mesitas Azules that incorporates monthly follow-up visits to support household members as they adopt and sustain a safe water management behavior. With this novel approach, Cántaro Azul seeks to transform the current water treatment paradigm from one with a heavy emphasis on products to one with a service oriented strategy. Instead of asking households to contribute with a one-time disbursement or limited series of microfinance payments, households are asked to pay a small monthly bill (less than $1 USD/month) that covers the cost of ongoing safe water management support and technical maintenance by a trained local staff. Furthermore, by adding $2 USD/month to the service fee, the capital cost of the Mesita Azul can be fully repaid within four years. Cántaro Azul will test this model in 2014 in 300 households located in Chiapas. If the model is successful, it would not only increase the sustained adoption of safe water practices, but would also facilitate the scaling up of the Mesita Azul program. With time, other related solutions (such as sanitation facilities and hygiene products) could be layered into the service model. Cántaro Azul is also currently partnering with Water for People in Cochabamba, Bolivia as a first step in the organization’s plan to scale regionally in Latin America.
When Fermín was a child, his night table was stacked high with biographies. Little did he know that his early introduction to the stories of Gandhi, Mandela, and Biko would lead him to devote his life to increasing the welfare of marginalized communities. Fermín’s moral compass first drew him to potable water problems in Mexico when he was a child in rural Baja California Sur and Chihuahua. Throughout his childhood, Fermín witnessed the dangerous effects that unsafe drinking water has on the health and economic development of a community.
As he grew older, Fermín’s entrepreneurial spirit and concern for marginalized communities led him to work on projects in Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and China. Fermín’s quest to solve the pressing developmental issues he had experienced firsthand while growing up led him to enroll in a prestigious university in Mexico City where he earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and developed a heightened interest in cutting-edge water technologies. Upon graduating from university, Fermín decided to begin his own project, a water quality study in 24 communities in Baja California. This study was the very first step in founding Cántaro Azul. Fermín’s academic pursuits, driven by a dedication to social impact, then brought him to UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. He studied design and evaluation of UV water treatment systems at Berkeley, earning his MS and Ph.D.. His innovative technologies had already been successfully applied in numerous water projects in Asia and Latin America by that point.
Remaining true to his philosophy that vast theoretical knowledge is meaningless without practical application, Fermín founded the Cántaro Azul Foundation in 2006 while still at Berkeley. He lived up to his reputation as a humane scientist when, while completing his doctorate coursework, he formed alliances with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the UNDP, and UC Berkeley to implement his clean water technologies and community-based models in Baja California, Chiapas, and other states of Mexico. Fermín’s expertise and dedication have since positioned Cántaro Azul as one of the leading organizations providing widespread access to safe water in Mexico, Central America, and beyond.