6 Years On – The Solar Desalination Plant

Many critics did not believe that we could achieve a solar desalination plant in the remote island of Uluveu. We believed it was possible and that has been achieved.We are not for one minute saying it was not difficult, we also have to say, that all problems have been our mistakes, not mistakes made by the community. At this point I must say the positive outcomes definitely outweigh the negative outcomes.

When you take on a completely un-trialled initiative such as this, you have to expect some steep learning curves. You also know, that the first plant will be where you learn and overcome difficulties. The Uluveu Nuwai Pavilion (Solar Desalination Plant), the name given to the plant by the community at the opening in 2012. For the purpose of this document, UNP will be the shortened name.

In 2010 we researched the possibility of supplying the community of Uluveu (1500 residents) with much needed safe clean drinking water, by way of solar desalination. We would not consider using fossil fuels as this was contrary to our philosophy. No one had, at that point, taken on such an endeavour so data was scarce and mostly supposition. We believed the only sustainable, environmentally positive way forward to supplying water, is by solar desalination so, we gathered a team of experts from New Zealand and that was where we started.

With any un-trialled project there are no guarantees that you will chose the right path or that the project will have positive outcomes. With all machinery there will be problems, whether you are in the west or in a poverty stricken village in the third world. Our determination was such, that we were not prepared to give up until we achieved our goal. This is the most important element of any project and one that all NGO’s need to accept. With any project, it is the follow up and constant assistance that will determine whether a project will be successful or not.

There have been many hurdles to overcome, especially the remote location and the lack of local expertise. In 2015 we were extremely fortunate to meet Dave Lawson, a mechanic/engineer from New Zealand living in Vanuatu. The desalination equipment was needing attention as the original plumbing design was not quite correct. Dave has spent the last year sorting this out with the local Uluveu plumber Kalo, now the desalination machine is running perfectly. There was a problem with the journey of the salt water to the plant, the distance the water had to travel created airlocks in the pipe. The solution, a new tank installed half way between the salt water and the plant. This tank will be filled with salt water and the line from the tank to the plant will be filled with salt water, eliminating the possibility of airlocks. The water making machine has been completely re-plumbed so the machine will now back wash the membranes and all the salt water will be completely washed from the membranes after each application. This will ensure salt free water and longevity of the membranes.

Last year, through no fault of the community, a gecko was able to get into the back of the Studer Inverter. The poor gecko managed to touch two points at the same time and fried itself to the board, pictures not necessary! Dave investigated this and found the gecko imprinted on the board. A new board was delivered to Dave and the problem was fixed and precautions have been taken to avoid this ever happening again.

UNP is a 6kw power station which supplies power to the local school, Sangalai. The Pavilion also houses a shower block and the students are able to shower regularly. This is not common as there are no other showers of this kind on the island. The Palm Project Soap Factory supplies the school off cuts of their anti-bacterial coconut oil soap and the students shower regularly. We have found this combination to be very effective in the fight against scabies, lice and skin infections. To compare, in 2005 when both RN Sally Peet and I were working at the clinic we found 60 percent of the children at Sangalai school were infected with scabies. We did special clinics to treat all the children but found on returning the next year the same number of children were infected. It was in 2007 that the soap making workshops were initiated, this soap immediately reduced the numbers of children with scabies. Once the soap factory started to produce washing soap and mothers used this to wash clothing and bedding we were starting to win the battle with scabies and lice.

In conclusion, Sally and I were at Uluveu together in 2015 we could not find any cases of scabies, Sally had clinics there at the school for 3 weeks. This was evidence, that not only the soap has been effective but the safe clean water has contributed to the eradication of scabies and lice. NZCHET are confident that raising the hygiene level, with continued use of the anti-bacterial soap and safe clean water, the children’s health will continue to improve. We will see less cases of scabies, lice, skin infections, eye and ear infections. We have seen an definate improvement in the health of the children and across the whole community.

The Vanuatu Ministry of Education has chosen Sanagalai School to be a secondary school for the area because of this facility. None of these outcomes were realise as we began this project, our main aim was to supply safe clean drinking water to a community of in times of drought. The island with the introduction of many water tanks are able to store 400,000 litres approx. of safe clean water. This project not only supplied tanks but also cleaned, mended and replace anti-mosquito netting to all existing tanks. Uluveu had many tanks because a man from Australia had installed a fibreglass factory on the island a few years before which, after his untimely death, closed. Although NZCHET do not support the use of fibreglass, we were prepared to mend the existing tanks which were in good working order.

To ensure the UNP becomes self-sufficient we are looking to install a block ice maker. The Pavilion has already supported an old block ice maker that belonged to the islands fisherman’s co-op. This was very successful and many people bought the ice, including fishing boats and cargo boats that visit the island regularly. With this data we have decided to purchase a new block ice maker that will bring in revenue for the Pavilion. The Palm Project Soap Factory is now self-sufficient with soap sales. Palm Project sell their soap to Trade Aid in NZ which have 34 stores. The revenue from this and local soap sales supports the soap factory. The Soap Factory have a range of products now including, shampoo, conditioner, 3 varieties of soap and virgin organic coconut oil.

Our belief is that solar desalination is the way forward to safe clean water. Solar desalination does not tamper with the islands resources. It does not use fossil fuels and is totally powered by the sun. The salt water is encroaching on all islands in Vanutau because of global warming and in fact, two islands have already been permanently evacuated because of rising water levels. The 6kw power offers the school and community power to create enterprise and the block ice maker will bring in revenue to support future maintenance on the plant.

Liane Farry Project Coordinator NZCHET / Palm Project