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When a Well Isn't Enough: Tackling the Salty Water Problem

When Jacob’s Well started working in the drought-stricken areas of northern Brazil more than 2 years ago, the strategy was to drill community wells as a way to bring both health and sanitation as well as economic stability. What was discovered was that the groundwater was not fit for drinking and even traditional farming. Civil engineer and Jacob’s Well board president Kirk Olds explains:

Is all well water (groundwater) drinkable?

While a lot of groundwater is drinkable (the technical term is “potable”), there are also many cases where the groundwater is either contaminated from human activities or not drinkable due to the minerals dissolved in the water from the geology of the area.

What was discovered in the groundwater of the Riacho da Porta region in Northern Brazil?

Most people find water with dissolved solids or minerals above 500 mg/L unpleasant to drink. The groundwater we tested in the region contained levels greater than 3000 mg/L, mostly due to sodium chloride (commonly known as salt). So, the well we installed was producing very salty water.

Is there any way to turn this salty water into drinking water?

Yes, but not easily. Through a reverse osmosis process or distillation, the salt can be removed and drinkable water can be obtained. Unfortunately, the process is both complicated and energy intensive.

Have you discovered ways to use the salty water without further treatment?

First, this water it is suitable for cleaning and basic hygiene requirements. Additionally, we have found through a partnership with the Federal University system in Brazil that has conducted years of research on saline hydroponics that there are a number of crops that have a higher salt tolerance and can be grown in the water without removing the salt. These crops include cilantro, sunflowers, and a common house plant in Brazil.

What will Jacob’s Well be doing with this salty water?

In addition to the well water currently being available to families in the community for cleaning and basic hygiene needs, Jacob’s Well is implementing a hydroponics pilot with a few families in the community in early 2017 to grow some of the “cash crops” and generate income. The pilot will be conducted in partnership with the local extension of the Federal University in the State of Ceara to both further research and provide the necessary training for family operators of the systems.

Can these techniques, when proven, be used elsewhere in the world where salty well water exists?

Absolutely! We hope to extend the pilot to other families in the community later in the year to both gain experience and refine the process of producing cash crops in salty water. Once established with the development of standard operating procedures, we believe this concept can be extended to a wide expanse of the drought region, restoring economic opportunity to families and communities devastated by severe drought conditions and the stronghold of the poverty cycle.

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