Agua SALud Project



The objective of the Agua SALud project is to assess the potentials of solar desalination

in remote communities of the Baja California Peninsula, Mexico.




Report of summer 2004 fieldwork in Mexico


An interdisciplinary team formed by seven Berkeley students traveled to the Peninsula of Baja California during the summer of 2004 with the goal of documenting water access and quality in remote communities. The project was coined Agua SALud, in allusion to the intrinsic relation between water quality and people’s health, as well as the high levels of salinity found in the peninsula’s water sources (Agua = water, Salud = health, SAL = salt).



Preparation Work in Berkeley


The Agua SALud project emerged in the fall of 2003 with the interest of analyzing the feasibility of introducing solar desalination units into communities that only have access to high salinity water sources. The project members initiated a programme to design, construct and test such units at UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL). The initiative included comparing the performance of construction materials, the efficiencies of different designs and analyzing the system’s ability to remove other contaminants.


Construction process of a solar desalination unit. The structure of the unit is made out of cardboard and then covered with multiple layers of fiberglass


In parallel, the students began a dialogue with two institutions in the state of Baja California Sur, Mexico: the National Council for the Promotion of Education (CONAFE), and the National Water Commission (CNA).  The purpose of forging these relationships was to gather information about water availability across the Peninsula, in order to design the best plan for the implementation of the solar desalination units.


 With the help of CONAFE, a federal decentralized institution in charge of providing elementary education in remote and migrant communities, the students received qualitative data of water quality in the region in the spring of 2004.  For many years CONAFE instructors have been reporting lack of water access as the main problem present in the rural communities, and they particularly emphasize the high salinity levels found in several water sources.


In hopes of acquiring quantitative data, the students approached CNA which licenses and monitors the use of groundwater wells. However, due to limited funds, CNA focuses only on wells extracting high volumes of water either for large irrigation projects or urban distribution systems, leaving hundreds of wells used by remote communities out of their scope. This meant that there was no qualitative information in the water use practices and water quality issues of remote communities.


Fermin testing different desalination units in Berkeley, CA

Without having solid data to work with, the project team had to change its strategy. The team members decided to first spend a summer documenting water quality and access, and then use the collected data to design a more appropriate scheme for the introduction of solar desalination units.


Water from high salinity sources, apart from being unpalatable for consumption, can have negative impacts on the health of humans. It is suspected that the consumption of high salinity water can increase the risk of developing hypertension and stone disease. Since the population in the world exposed to high salinity water is scattered in small communities, there have been only few and non-conclusive studies on this matter.


With the motivation to further investigate this puzzle, the Agua SALud team decided to perform a cross-sectional epidemiological study of the possible health consequences of drinking high salinity water as part of the summer field studies. In May 2004, the team received the 7th Student Project Award from the Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) in support for carrying out the epidemiological study.


With support from Engineers for a Sustainable World - Berkeley (ESW-B), the College of Engineering, RAEL, COEH, the Woodside Rotary Club, Berkeley Professors and Alumni; the Agua SALud team took off to do fieldwork in Baja California Sur the last week of May 2004.



Fieldwork in Mexico


Florence collecting water samples from well

in Boca del Alamo

During the last week of May, the Agua SALud team established a base in La Paz, the capital city of the Baja California Sur state, where the Reygadas and Shroyer families kindly hosted the students in their homes for the rest of the summer. The first two weeks in Mexico were spent designing the fieldwork logistics and polishing survey and water analysis techniques with staff from the partner organizations.


 At CNA the team found a first-class but abandoned Flame Photometer ideal for the important sodium concentration measurements. Some pieces of the Flame Photometer were missing and the CNA staff did not know how to operate it anymore. Combining the Berkeley engineering skills and the creativity needed in environments with few resources, the Agua SALud team fixed the apparatus, developed a protocol for use, and trained the CNA staff to operate the Flame Photometer.


In the second week of June, the Agua SALud team, accompanied by a representative from CONAFE, hit the road to initiate what would be 9 weeks of difficult fieldwork filled with amazing experiences. During this period the team visited more than 20 communities along Baja California Sur; including fishing camps in the shores of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, ranches settled deep in the Sierras, and agricultural camps harvested by migrant workers from mainland Mexico.


A typical day of work in the communities started with a visit to the CONAFE representative to explain the reason and general procedure of the investigation. During this interaction, which was always accompanied with a kindly offered home-ground cup of coffee, the team gathered information about the whereabouts of the households and proximity of water sources in the community. Then, the team usually split in two groups: one was responsible for surveying the community members, and the other was in charge of collecting samples from all water sources and storage tanks.


Eva, Nerea and Fermin interviewing

a family in San Miguel

The first group of students used three different questionnaires to gather information from the community members. One focused on collecting information about the local resources found in the community, including the construction materials that were easily accessible, and the expertise people had in working with wood, masonry, metals and fiberglass. This was done with the intention of assessing the viability of promoting locally developed water purification systems in the future. A second questionnaire targeted mothers with children under five, and looked at the incidence of diarrhea versus water access and sanitary practices. The third questionnaire was the core of the epidemiological study, it targeted adults in the community and it was composed of a physical examination and a set of questions related to the water consumption of the individual and their medical history.


The second group of students looked at the water quality issues. Due to the geographic conditions of the peninsula, the water sources were always of groundwater origin. Most communities relied on artisan wells and springs, some on motorized wells connected to simple distribution systems and others on water brought by the Military Disaster Relief Unit in big tanker-trucks. Independent of the source, people stored their water in plastic barrels, ranging from 50 to 200 liters of capacity.


Aren and Summer performing microbial tests in Palma Sola, San Jose Island

The water quality group recorded the location and characteristics of each of these sources.  They measured the temperature, pH, conductivity and total dissolved solids in the water, and collected samples for further analysis. While still in the community and usually in the evenings, the team performed arsenic, nitrate and microbial contamination tests on the samples collected during the day. The nitrate and arsenic tests were done using field test kits which did not require much time to run; however, the bacteria colonies in the microbial tests needed to be grown at 35ºC for a 24hr period. The most difficult part of this task was keeping the electric incubator running in the field where it was really hard to find a place to plug it in to an electric connection or to recharge its battery. Often times the team had to bring the bacteria plates into their sleeping bags to ensure they had a warm and “healthy” growing night!


From each fieldtrip the team brought back samples from the water sources to be further analyzed for sodium concentration at the CNA lab using the newly fixed Flame Photometer. To validate the field test kit measurements, samples were also brought to the U.S. and sent to a laboratory at the University of Washington for arsenic concentration.







At the end of three months of fieldwork, the Agua SALud team had visited 24 communities, interviewed 350 of its members and traveled more than 10,000 kilometers by pick-up, bus, boat, and mule.


Large-scale abandoned solar desalination plant, El Pardito Islet

 The results of the water quality tests were disheartening; however, based on the survey results there is reason to hope that the situation can be improved. The detailed study confirmed the lack of access to potable water initially reported by CONAFE instructors. More than half of the people living in these rural communities consume water with fecal contamination. Around one third of the water sources tested showed concentrations of arsenic and sodium higher than the levels allowed by the Mexican Government (which are similar to those established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). A handful of water sources had high levels of nitrate; most of these sources where located near agricultural camps or areas with cattle and goat herding. On the up side, the community members, especially those with children, showed great interest in modifying their sanitary and water fetching/storage practices in order to improve their health conditions.


 Most of the water sources in the communities are not properly adapted or maintained to prevent contamination, and in fact the Agua SALud team often detected high levels of bacteria present right at the source. Surprisingly, in several cases where the source was clean, the team observed that water got contaminated with fecal matter both in the water fetching and storage processes, even when the community members were following the Health Ministry recommendations of always covering the storage tanks and washing them every week with soap.


Eva and Fermin discussing water quality and health issues with a family in La Ceiba agricultural camp

 Further investigation and an ad hoc experiment revealed that the microbes were getting into the water when people immersed cups or glasses into the containers to draw water for drinking purposes. In this process, people dipped the cup and usually part of their hand too, neither of which were necessarily clean. Fortunately the solution for this issue is quite simple: the Health Ministry and other organizations have to strongly encourage people to store water in containers that have a tap or a manual pump (which can be done with less than $1 U.S. dollar) in order to reduce contact and therefore contamination.


 Water is essential in Baja California Sur and people are very receptive to projects like the one organized by the Berkeley team. Throughout the summer, everywhere on the peninsula the Agua SALud team received positive participation from community members and staff of governmental and non-governmental organizations. The team was often invited, and almost forced to make commitments to go back to the communities not only to help in water issues, but also to share another cup of coffee and a homemade quesadilla while telling jokes under the precious shade of a palapa (palm-woven roof).






Agua SALud Team



Agua SALud team heading to Santa Cruz, a beautiful community in the canyons of the Sierra de la Giganta

Fermin Reygadas

MS/PhD Student

Energy and Resources Group


Aren Hansen, MS Chemistry

MS Student

Environmental Engineering


Eva Tovar, MD

MPH Student

School of Public Health


Eva Markiewicz

Undergraduate Student

College of Engineering


Summer Nastich, LLM

PhD Student

Environmental Engineering


Florence Cassassuce

MS Student

Geoenvironmental Engineering


Rebecca Leonardson

PhD Student

Environmental Engineering


Claudia Espino

Undergraduate Student

Environmental Engineering






-                     Water Quality Analysis

-                     Epidemiological Study

-                     Descriptions of Partner Organizations




Agua SALud in the news!



-                     Engineering News, April 19, 2004

-                     The 2004 Environmental Engineering Alumni News Letter





Support for this project has been provided by:

- The Center for Occupational and Environmental Health

- The College of Engineering

- The Energy Foundation

- Engineers for a Sustainable World - Berkeley

- Berkeley Alumni and Professors

- The Woodside Rotary Club

- Individual donors