Dylan Terrell

Because of the pandemic, Dylan Terrell was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Dylan is using groundbreaking, open-source technologies and data to secure universal access to safe water. He does this by placing rural communities at the center of designing, building, and spreading appropriate systems to obtain clean water while also improving understanding of water issues to identify the most impactful policies to push for.

The New Idea

Dylan is promoting access to safe and affordable water for marginalized communities across Mexico using bottom-up innovation. Through Caminos de Agua, he is providing both immediate solutions for water-stressed regions and strategies to counter the root causes. In particular, he has drawn attention to the issue of chemical pollution from the over-exploitation of groundwater and its devastating effects on communities’ health.

On one hand, Caminos de Agua is delivering pioneering low-cost technologies that enable entire communities facing water scarcity to collect and purify water. Current solutions to provide clean water are not affordable for rural communities or are inadequate for arid regions. Through a wide network of grassroots partners, Dylan trains and involves community members to design and build systems that are appropriate to the local context, followed by long-term monitoring and evaluation to track progress and iterate solutions. These field-tested technologies are then made publicly available– meaning anyone in the world suffering from similar water challenges can learn from their designs and data to develop local solutions.

On the other, they are taking the lead on one of the biggest barriers to promoting sustainable management of water resources: lack of information and transparency. Caminos de Agua has developed a comprehensive education program for communities, schools, NGOs, and governments to raise awareness about local and global water issues. Additionally, they create low-cost methods to produce more accurate, detailed, and updated data on water issues at community and national levels, offering this data openly to ensure informed decision-making by stakeholders across sectors.

To date, Caminos de Agua has served 30,000 people mostly in Mexico but also in Haiti, Colombia, and Guatemala. They are particularly active in low-income rural and peri-urban areas facing extreme water stress. Caminos de Agua is now increasingly focused on building networks to increase the engagement of other stakeholders to create collaborative systemic solutions. They are working on local and federal level policies to improve water management and climate change resiliency, as well as educating other organizations in the field to monitor water quality and replicate their systems. Dylan is scaling solutions by leveraging a unique combination of state-of-the-art technology, community-led approaches, and collaboration with a multiplicity of partners in a notoriously fragmented sector.

The Problem

In Mexico, 52% of the population (~67 million people) live with some form of water scarcity; more than 47 million do not have daily or continuous water access, and an estimated 9-11 million have no water service at all. At the same time, 75% of water is used for agriculture. Agriculture represents over three-fourths of total groundwater withdrawals in the country, the second-highest level among OECD countries, with usage increasing exponentially. In the state of Guanajuato, for example, over-exploitation for industrial agriculture is reducing groundwater levels by two to three meters per year—30 times above the eight-centimeter loss per year that qualifies as "extreme water stress". The decrease in groundwater levels is forcing wells ever deeper into geological substrates, which has resulted in the emergence of dangerous naturally-occurring chemicals in local groundwater supplies. In Guanajuato, arsenic levels are 22 times higher than the World Health Organization recommends and more than 12 times higher for fluoride.

Chemical pollution of water supplies is a serious public health crisis. Arsenic and fluoride, for instance, are closely linked to dental fluorosis, crippling skeletal fluorosis, chronic kidney disease, skin disease, and various cancers. Children are at greatest risk, as their growing bodies absorb these minerals at a much higher rate, and exposure to high fluoride in utero has shown to have severe impacts on children’s cognitive development and learning ability later in life. In Mexico alone more than 70% of the country has excessive levels of arsenic and/or fluoride in the water supply, directly impacting up to 21 million people; globally, this number increases to 300 million people, located mostly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, lack of adequate water monitoring means the problem has remained largely unknown and therefore untreatable.

Beyond polluting groundwater, over-exploitation eventually causes even the deeper wells to eventually dry up, leaving entire communities without access to water. Residents are forced to fetch water from alternative sources that are often unreliable, expensive, or unsafe, putting their physical and economic wellbeing at risk—especially for women, who are usually responsible for fetching water. Water stress also sows social conflict and has been linked with forced displacement in several locations around Mexico and worldwide.

Current solutions to improve access to safe water are not adequate for rural contexts. For instance, buying water bottles is expensive, exacerbates environmental issues through plastic pollution, and is not trustworthy since some bottles throughout Mexico have been found to contain contaminated water. Government efforts to provide water trucks are not enough to meet demand and do not reach all the communities in need, while transnational interests keep federal authorities from regulating overexploitation of water by agricultural industries. Meanwhile, most commercially available treatment systems do not remove arsenic and fluoride, and those that do are unaffordable to rural communities and not suited to the local water chemistry. Another common alternative, rainwater harvesting, is limited in semi-arid regions since it requires time-consuming and expensive constructions to store enough water.

Dylan believes that this crisis must be faced with both innovative, low-cost short-term solutions that address the current needs of marginalized communities, as well as long-term strategies to tackle increasingly complex water challenges.

The Strategy

Dylan combats water scarcity and contamination in marginalized communities through three key strategies: developing community-led, low-cost technologies for capturing and filtering water, raising awareness at all levels about local and global water challenges, and assembling multi-stakeholder collaborations to affect long-term policies and solutions.

Dylan’s strategy starts with monitoring and mapping water quality and scarcity challenges at the community level. Caminos de Agua partners with grassroots and community organizations that already have a deep understanding of local challenges and can facilitate relationships of trust with locals. This broad network allows a birds-eye yet detailed view of the water situation in communities across Mexico, which enables them to identify and direct resources towards those most at risk. Once invited to a community, Caminos de Agua works in tandem with local partners on an intense education and consensus-building process to ensure that solutions are responsive to real local needs. Their participatory process enables communities to take the lead in designing, building, and maintaining water collection and filtering technologies. Through a series of workshops and community meetings, Caminos de Agua share their findings on local water quality and explain the available options. If the community decides to take action, they then provide technical training and a seven-module educational program and support community members to build the systems themselves and make all decisions regarding organization, beneficiaries, and locations.

Caminos de Agua uses an unusually collaborative approach: in addition to local communities and grassroots organizations, they have partnered with leading international universities and with Engineers Without Borders to develop appropriate solutions. Through these collaborations, Caminos de Agua has created pioneering technologies that deliver more affordable, adaptable, and durable technologies to ensure access to water in communities that are largely underserved by traditional markets. To date, they have developed two main solutions: Aguadapt and a Groundwater Treatment System (GTS). Both are simple and low-cost, utilizing universally available inexpensive materials so they can be easily replicated in different contexts.

Existing low-cost water filters are limited in scope and unable to adjust to the unique water problems and context of each community. Aguadapt is an award-winning, low-cost ceramic water filter that removes 99.9% of all pathogens in under five minutes, attaches to universal plumbing, and is easily installed in all common containers, making it ideal for disaster relief. Each filter is about the size of a liter of bottled water but can produce upwards of 30,000 liters of safe drinking water over its four-year life, at a price accessible for a family living on less than $2 USD per day. Most importantly, Aguadapt can be adapted to treat regionally specific chemical contaminants that disproportionately affect low-income communities around the world. This adaptability lowers costs by avoiding overengineering to remove contaminants that are not locally necessary. For instance, communities in Mexico can use arsenic and fluoride add-ons, while in Southeast Asia they could use an activated carbon add-on to deal with organic chemicals. As chemicals are poised to become the world’s most serious water contamination challenge , Aguadapt is the first low-cost technology designed to be flexible enough to tackle the problem in any context. To date, more than 7,000 Aguadapts have been distributed through NGO partners across Mexico, impacting more than 11,600 people. These filters are also used in Caminos de Agua’s rainwater harvesting systems, which have created more than 3.2 million liters of rainwater storage capacity and 125 million liters of filtering capacity in 68 communities and 30 schools throughout Mexico.

Meanwhile, the GTS was developed to affordably remove arsenic and fluoride from contaminated community water supplies—the first of its kind in the world. For roughly the same initial cost of one rainwater harvesting system that would only serve one to two families, and 100 times cheaper than buying water, a GTS can be installed to provide clean drinking water to up to 15 families. Unlike commercial options, the GTS requires no electricity, does not waste any water, and can be designed and adapted to address a given population’s needs, size, and levels of arsenic and fluoride. After a successful year-long trial, Caminos de Agua is in the midst of the first full-scale pilot system trial in a rural community that faces water deprivation and excessive levels of arsenic and fluoride contamination. After only a few months, the GTS is already providing 300 liters of drinking water per day to ten households. They are currently in talks with the State Health Secretary of Guanajuato to roll it out statewide in the next year.

By empowering communities and local partners to co-lead solutions from day one, Caminos de Agua has achieved exceptional levels of sustainability. Involving communities at each step—rather than installing pre-made, top-down solutions—fosters ownership and builds local capacity to maintain the systems. For example, follow-up research on rainwater harvesting systems installed in 2018 showed that 100% of households were using the systems and around 90% were correctly maintaining them. Their participatory approach also promotes sustainable behaviors since they become more aware of the quality of the water they drink and about how their daily habits can affect the environment. Some communities have implemented practices such as reducing the use of single-use plastics after participating in the educational program.

Long-term monitoring and evaluation has shown concrete results around Mexico. In one rural community, the prevalence of water-derived health conditions such as dental fluorosis in children has been measurably reduced from generation to generation. Children born after the installation of rainwater harvesting and filtering systems no longer suffer from the severe stomach pain and dental fluorosis that were prevalent in the community before the project. Caminos de Agua has reduced arsenic and fluoride contaminated water consumption by 100% in impacted communities and increased overall water access by 26%, with all families reporting sufficient water for drinking and cooking. As a result, 92% of households have lowered their annual spending on potable water from 22% of their income on average to less than 2%, illustrating a savings of MXN $4,380,000 per family over the 30-year guaranteed duration of the systems. Promoting access to clean water not only improves health outcomes and reduces the load on the health system, but also develops social cohesion by reducing conflict due to water scarcity. Beneficiaries interviewed during the site visit mentioned that, since collaborating with Caminos de Agua in installing water systems, they developed closer relationships with their neighbors that have led to other community-led projects even beyond water issues.

As well as developing and implementing technical solutions for the short and medium term, Dylan is tackling the systemic causes of water issues by promoting education, building networks, and improving access to data to influence policies and strategies at the national level. To raise awareness about modern water quality challenges, Caminos de Agua provides its educational program and materials not only for communities but also for other NGOs, schools, and authorities. All of their materials are made publicly available on their website. They have also developed international university-accredited courses, and function as a “field school” to prepare young aspiring engineers to be socially responsible professionals. So far, 29 “Technical Fellows” from Mexico and eight other countries have spent six months to a year gaining the hands-on technical, social, and political experience necessary to improve systemic sustainability issues around the world.

Together with educational programs, Dylan is improving the general understanding of water issues by providing rich, open-source data that the government can use to make policy decisions and that citizens can use to hold authorities and industries accountable. They leverage their network of grassroots partners to continuously monitor water quality, scarcity, access, cost, and conflicts on the ground, currently covering 600 sites. In one municipality of Guanajuato, a study of all the local wells ultimately pushed the administration to build 100 large-scale rainwater harvesting systems and treatment plants in the most impacted communities. At the state level, they work with the Department of Environment and Sustainability to provide an extensive monitoring and evaluation program of the state’s own rainwater harvesting projects. Caminos de Agua then aggregates their own data with that from other organizations, institutions, and the government and makes it available in a free interactive map that can be easily accessed and understood by the general public. Convinced that increasing citizens’ understanding of water issues is essential to drive bottom-up solutions, Dylan is engaging strategic partners to develop mechanisms for communities to produce their own, contextually relevant data independently and make it easily available to all. For instance, he is collaborating with an interdisciplinary and international group of researchers to develop new methods for reliable arsenic detection, providing a portable and inexpensive alternative to lab testing that can be run by local community technicians. Nationally, their open-source databases have become an important transparency instrument that supports policy formulation and enforcement by tracking progress, spotting trends, and improving responsiveness. In 2018, the National Public Health Institute used this data to measure the public health impact of contaminated drinking water in local communities.

To scale his impact, Dylan is focusing on engaging and mobilizing multisector partnerships at local and international levels to co-create systemic solutions. He has joined the National Inventory on Water Quality Network where he works with academic institutions and civil society organizations to map water quality issues throughout the country, especially arsenic and fluoride pollution. This initiative not only ensures that actors across society have accurate data but also collaborate to create solutions. Further, Caminos de Agua is one of the few NGO members with voting power on the National Consultative Council for Water, where they influence federal policies regarding water access and conservation. Back in Guanajuato, Dylan spearheaded a new coalition of 14 local NGOs, the Agua Vida Network, to promote a coordinated and unified voice in the battle for healthy potable water in the region. Together, they are advocating the government of San Miguel de Allende to make the region the first municipality in all of Mexico to require rainwater harvesting systems be installed in all future housing and commercial developments. Caminos de Agua is also one of two NGOs that have partnered with the State Ministries of Tourism and Environment to push the local tourism sector to directly invest in climate change mitigation and water conservation initiatives.

Moving forward, Dylan seeks to bring Caminos de Agua’s technologies to more communities in Mexico and beyond. He is considering forming a subsidiary to manufacture and market their solutions, particularly to other NGOs as well as governments, which would enable them to scale out while generating an income stream to be reinvested in the organization. For the GTS, he plans on partnering with municipal and state governments to provide the systems as an ongoing service business. While in previous years his organization has grown slowly due to the intensive research and development work, they now have the infrastructure and concrete solutions to rapidly increase their impact to tens of thousands more people. Additionally, Dylan will double efforts to build collaborative networks and influence policies to raise awareness and solve systemic issues. In particular, he is looking to restore watersheds, increase groundwater infiltration, limit consumption from water abusers, promote reforestation, and push citizens and industry alike to invest in water conservation and capture for the good of all.

The Person

Dylan grew up in the United States in a family that greatly emphasized working to create a better world for everyone. He volunteered with his grandparents’ community organization from a young age, where he was exposed to diverse social problems ranging from immigration to housing. He is constantly inspired by his grandfather’s words: “If you’re not finding a way to help improve the lives of real people, every day, then you’re missing the point.” This ethos has helped him to take risks and make difficult choices to continue serving others, even when it meant going against the tide.

At 17 years old, Dylan took an unusual path before starting college: he traveled to Guatemala to volunteer and learn about the country. He became enamored with Latin America but was struck by the rampant inequality throughout the region. This stop became the first of several Latin American countries where he would later live and work in. While working in an orphanage in Peru, he became passionate about promoting sustainable development and decided to pursue a master’s in Global Sustainability and Rural Development. During his master’s program in Colorado, his work with a grassroots nonprofit took him to Chiapas to work with indigenous communities on social development projects. However, in splitting time between Mexico and the U.S., he grew frustrated by the lack of effective and deep impact over his short visits.

That is why, after meeting like-minded people in Guanajuato, he decided to build up a new project to develop solutions based on real community needs. From day one, he fully committed to the work by moving permanently to live in Mexico. Initially, the aim of his organization was to respond to local issues with sustainable technologies, training, and support. But it was through partnering with—and listening to the needs of—local communities and grassroots organizations that he understood water scarcity and contamination as the most urgent problems in the region and decided to launch Caminos de Agua.