People in Boulder gathered Thursday night to learn about sustainable development in Rwanda from an aerospace engineer based in Houston. Early on in his presentation, Evan Thomas showed a photo of test results of water supplies done when he first got to Rwanda: the ideal result is a clean white dish; the actual result was a mess of dark brown, and contained levels of bacteria that Evan said is the equivalent of raw sewage.

(People were also there to bid on auction items from yoga packages to vacations abroad—all meant to benefit the Watershed School, which hosted the event—but the highlight of the night, at least for me, was discussing carbon emissions reductions and water treatment technologies in places that need cleaner water.)

So Evan and his company, Manna Energy, have installed water purification systems that use sand filters to disinfect water as thoroughly as boiling does—but without any of the energy that boiling consumes. Because it displaces the need to use firewood or charcoal and the emissions that those create, Manna is waiting for UN approval of emission-reduction credits for installation of the systems. That means they generate revenue, making it a more sustainable model than all too many charitable efforts that may be good-intentioned, but often lack long-term plans.

Accountability is another element often lacking in nonprofit models. To ensure that goals are met and quality is maintained, the project design requires certification of the treatment systems by both the Rwanda government and by independent auditors sent in by the UN.

Because of the emissions credits, the initiative is called the Rwanda Water Treatment and Carbon Finance Project, and Evan said on Thursday that the Swedish government (a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol) has bought all of the project's credits thus far. His projected estimate is that for an upfront investment of $1.5 million, 13,000 people are able to have treated water for ten years—and that with the credits, the investment actually generates $8 million of revenue.

Small caveat

In truth, many people in Rwanda do not have either time to boil their water or the extra money to buy the resources necessary to do so, so the water treatment system is really only suppressing a demand for energy use, rather than displacing actual energy consumption. Evan' argument is that because the total number of carbon credits around the world is capped by Kyoto, and because China and other countries have continued to build fossil fuel-burning power plants while receiving credits to compensate for the resulting emissions, the Rwanda project is simply taking would-be credits for dirty power plants.

They are also teaching people how to operate the systems, which means less dependence on foreign assistance, and they are working on other projects as well: biogas reactors in Rwanda that produce methane for energy and lighten the load on the water treatment systems by removing contamination from human and animal waste, and in Afghanistan, the team is working with a local organization, Afghans4Tomorrow, to develop fuel briquettes, which can reduce deforestation as well as the smoke produced from burning fuel or charcoal.

Ultimately, said Evan, the idea behind Manna Energy is to "increase access to carbon finance to populations currently living on charity."