April 1, 2022

UCalgary students provide hope for communities in need of clean drinking water

Schulich capstone project converts rainwater into potable water
A cup of water after it was put through a UCalgary team's filtration system. Winson Say

Many of us take for granted what happens when we turn on the taps: clean water to drink.

It’s estimated more than 884 million people don’t have that same luxury, including more than three million in the Philippines, according to global non-profit organization water.org.

Many organizations and groups are trying to find solutions to this worldwide issue, including one group of students at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering that is undertaking a project to transform rainwater into potable water for remote communities.

Winson Say, Brian Zhuang, Edvin George, Sumiran Rao, Karim Shehadeh and Mohammed Al Madhani are putting the finishing touches on their final project, which will be part of the 2022 Engineering Design Fair.

“As our main catalyst and motivation, as a team, we share a common understanding and appreciation to serving communities without access to safe drinking water,” explains Say. “This project spoke to us the most as we were selecting our capstone project topic.”

Low-cost system

Putting what they learned in the classroom to practice, the group set the goal of building a bio sand-filtration system capable of providing potable water to impoverished communities.

“We designed a low-cost system made from a high-density poly ethylene (HDPE) drum, PVC pipes, sand and gravel, which all are intended to be sourced locally in the Philippines,” Say says. “The filter will have little to no maintenance cost within five years of operation.”


The students stop for lunch and a group photo before getting back to work.

Winson Say

The group set an output goal of providing enough to supply 10 families with 15 litres of water per day per family.

Testing the system closer to home, using water from the Bow River, the team was able to gauge the effectiveness of the system in filtering out E. Coli bacteria.

Help along the way

Aside from getting advice from Schulich professors, the group leaned on Canadian-based charity Progressive Assistance Canada Charity (PAC) to help tailor the project properly.

“PAC has been providing funding for constructing the prototype as well as ongoing support and guidance on the common modes of transportation used by the people we are serving so our team is able to design a filter that can be easily implemented by the people,” Say notes.

PAC director of strategy and development (and Schulich alumnus), John Salazar, BSc (Eng)’14, says his team has been working with the UCalgary students on many facets of the project.

“Accessible clean water is a critical foundation to human life and, unless we step back, many may not realize how we have taken that for granted,” he says. “Many communities today still have no access to clean water — this includes Canada — and even more so in countries like the Phillipines.”


The students' capstone project is aimed at filtering rainwater into clean drinking water for communities in the Philippines.

Winson Say

Say adds the students also received help from Dr. Dongyan Niu, PhD, and Jenny Hyun of UCalgary’s Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, who provided recommendations and tested water samples.

The team, he says, also credits Dr. Masaki Hayashi, PhD, and Derek Wilson, BSc’05, for their help in finding the properties of sand being used in building the filter.

Game-changer could have worldwide impacts

With the prototype now finished and confirmation the filter is able to remove bacteria from water, Say indicates the team still has lots of work to do.

“We are currently collecting flow-rate data to ensure the actual filter is able to serve the needs of 10 families,” he says. “The next step for this project will be to build a filter with the same design locally in the Philippines and collect data on the filtered water using the locally sourced raw water as input.”

If it proves to be a successful prototype, the system could have worldwide impacts for any community needing one of life’s necessities.

PAC founder and executive director Philippe Blanchard believes there is a lot of promise in what has been done.

“This is a game-changer for us,” he says. “We have already identified a new community in the Philippines that would benefit from this water-purification system, especially as their village is located across a river that cuts them off from their potable water source during the rainy season.”

The project will be one of many that will be shown virtually at the 2022 Engineering Design Fair on April 5.