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August 2011 Archives

River Life

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Wherever you grew up, wherever you live today, chances are there is a river that is part of your story. For the University of Minnesota, the river is the Mississippi.

One of the world's largest and hardest-working waterways, the Mississippi runs right through the heart of the Twin Cities campus. Scientists conduct research here. Rowers practice their strokes. Students enjoy the sun-sparkled waters as they walk, bike or bus from class to class. And IonE's River Life program builds from it a foundation for understanding and appreciating rivers everywhere.

In River Life's words: "Rivers represent perhaps the most complex biological and physical systems in the world. And worldwide, great rivers are threatened: Water quality and quantity both are at peril from overuse, from competing uses, and from a generalized failure to recognize how valuable and imperiled the resource really is. Our work is grounded in a conviction that future river managers will need to be conversant in the sciences, public policy, design, planning, and in the engagement programs that reach the broadest sectors of the populace."

Like to learn more? Check out River Life's new website, launched just last week. The site is a strategic hub for scientists, policymakers, educators, citizens and others who want or need to understand and synthesize the many dimensions of rivers and river issues. Using social media, a digital atlas, and case study reports, River Life develops and share knowledge about science, planning, engagement, inclusion, sustainability, and river issues in a spatial, thoughtful, and timely manner. Through the website you can explore a list of river resources, view river-related news items, read river stories, learn how you can make the river a part of your curriculum, and use the program's signature River Atlas to get a bird's eye view of rivers and river issues. Take a look!

A Neighborhood of Raingardens

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Film Poster.jpgWhat good are raingardens? They help capture water running from roofs, lawns, driveways and streets, allowing it to soak into the soil rather than carry sediment and other pollutants into lakes and streams. They add the beauty of native plants to a community. Less visible but every bit as significant, they can unite community members around the common theme of beautifying neighborhoods while protecting natural resources. 

"A Neighborhood of Raingardens," a documentary produced and directed by College of Liberal Arts faculty member and Institute on the Environment resident fellow Mark Pedelty, depicts the transformation of a Minneapolis neighborhood through a community raingarden project. Premiering Friday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. at the St. Anthony Main Theater in Minneapolis, the video showcases an inspirational initiative to clean up Powderhorn Lake one yard at a time. Guided and encouraged by Metro Blooms, hundreds of Powderhorn residents got together over the course of four months to install more than 100 raingardens.

The 60-minute film, sponsored by IonE and The Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, follows the initiative from inception to fruition, illustrating the promises and problems of this exciting new citizen-centered approach to watershed management. It draws on the talents of many U of M students, community members and Karl Demer of Atomic K Studios, who provided much of the professional support. 

 Admission for the premiere is $8.50 general, $6 students and seniors. Find more information and buy tickets here.

A Cart, a Drip, a Greenhouse

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Prosperity Cart 1.jpgSeveral entries ago we highlighted Sewasan, a social entrepreneurship project that's aiming to improve sanitation in slums by establishing a business to provide and maintain hygienic toilets. Sewasan is just one of several international student-led projects that have gotten a jump-start this summer from IonE's Acara program through its Acara Institute, held in Bangalore. Here's a quick look at a couple of others:

The Prosperity Cart

The Prosperity Cart, developed by students from Cornell University in the U.S. and Somaiya Institute of Management in Mumbai, aims to improve food safety by selling specially designed modular carts to street food vendors in India.

Update from team member Rohit Katyal of Somaiya: We have gotten approval for funding of Rs.100,000 from Acara, which is close to $2,000. This comes as a follow-up to our findings at the Summer Institute. We realized during the course that the exact demand (customer need plus the ability to pay) cannot be actually ascertained without having a prototype. In our business venture there are two main stakeholders: the street food vendor (customer), who is going to purchase our cart and use it to sell his product, and the end consumer of the food product (consumer). One of the value propositions to the customer is that, using this better-looking and hygienic cart, he can charge a premium on the food he sells, thereby increasing his earnings. Using the prototype we want to prove that the consumer will pay a slightly extra amount for the same food product. Once this is proven, we can go out and start our operations on a full scale.


MyRain is developing a drip irrigation business to reduce malnutrition and boost income in rural India. It is a collaboration of students at the University of Minnesota and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

Team member Sri Latha Ganti of the University of Minnesota reports: Things have been progressing at myRain. We've received an investment of $5,000 from investors David Kurzman, David Mitchell and Leo Sharkey. This helped finance my trip to India. During my visit, we were able to identify two local entrepreneurs. They are interested in partnering with us and selling drip irrigation kits locally. We are currently training the entrepreneurs in aspects related to technical, marketing and customer support of the product. We expect the entrepreneurs to be able to be making sales in about three to four months.

Ankur Initiative

The Ankur Initiative, a partnership of students from Duke University and the IIT, is gearing up to sell lightweight plastic greenhouses to Indian farmers to reduce water loss, boost yields and allow farmers to produce market goods at an economically favorable time.

From correspondent Ankit Mittal, a student at IIT: After winning the Acara Challenge, three of our team members attended the Summer Institute and learned a lot about making the business sustainable and about community involvement. After the Summer Institute we refined our plan a lot. We have three influential farmers who are ready and very enthusiastic about this new technology. We had made visits to our target village, Charba, in recent few days and have confirmed the pilot run. Since weather conditions here now don't allow us to acara institute2.jpgagain visit the village and market, we are working to get funds transferred from our Duke partner to IIT's account so we can use them for the future business. Weather conditions are expected to remain same for the next 12 to15 days, so we can expect a pilot start by the next month.

Still to come: Reports from Acara teams Swach and TextRA. Stay tuned!

Top photo: Prosperity Cart, courtesy of Rohit Katyal. Lower photo: Sewasan Acara Institute participants, courtesy of Fred Rose.

Valuing Valuing Nature

nature.jpgLooks like we're starting to get it.

In a feature story in its Global Edition Science Section this week, the New York Times showcased the work of ecologist Gretchen Daily, IonE fellow Stephen Polasky  and their Natural Capital Project colleagues. The team, hailing from the U of M, Stanford, the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, has developed a  tool businesses and governments can use to incorporate the value of nature's services into planning and decision making.

-1.jpgThe tool, InVEST, is starting to be used around the world to include valuable but often ignored functions such as protecting water quality and preventing soil erosion into decisions about whether and how to alter natural landscapes. InVEST helps identify when leaving land alone - or steering use in certain directions - produces an economically more beneficial outcome n the long run than activities that are traditionally seen as the big money makers, such as draining wetlands, harvesting and selling trees, or building homes or shopping centers.

Read the New York Times article, "An Economist for Nature Calculates the Need for More Protection," to get a sense for what Daily, Polasky and colleagues are up to. And when you're done, check out this fun and insightful 3-minute video:

The Business End of Climate Change

Whether climate change is real is a moot point for a growing number of big businesses. Just as wrestler/author (and former Minnesota governor) Jesse Ventura didn't have time to bleed, these companies don't have time to argue. Instead, they're adapting their business strategies, their investment portfolios and their profitability plans to accommodate the higher oceans, hotter temperatures and more mercurial weather associated with global climate change. In an article from the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media reposted at Momentum last week, writer Michael Coren notes these adaptations, among others:

  • Rio Tinto, an international mining company, is updating engineering standards at a number of its facilities to accommodate climate change.
  • Honda, Vodafone and SwissRe are incorporating climate change into investment decisions.
  • Volkswagen aims to enhance its competitive advantage by investing in water filtration plants.
  • Chemical manufacturer BASF considers climate risk when planning expansion.
  • Siemens is developing strategies to capitalize on opportunities presented by climate change.

Coren suggests that using a risk management approach rather than calculating the costs of individual adverse events will be key for companies hoping to cope successfully with a warmer world. "Businesses could come to see climate adaptation 'as an insurance policy against an uncertain future,'" he writes. Read more.

Sewasan: Improving Sanitation for Slum Dwellers

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sewasan.jpgIt's not your run-of-the mill student project, that's for sure. A group of university students from India and Minnesota who took a social entrepreneurship class together last fall are developing a people- and environment-friendly sanitation system for slum dwellers in India.

The team is part of Acara, an IonE program that prepares young leaders to develop entrepreneurial solutions to specific sustainable development challenges, then helps the best teams launch their ventures. Sewasan was one of four teams chosen to attend the three-week Acara Summer Institute in Bangalore last month, where they received intensive training to turn their visions into practical plans for moving ahead.

Here's a summary of Sewasan's plan, courtesy of team member Radhika Kapoor:

Who are we?
We are Sewasan, a social venture formed by a group of young entrepreneurs from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds and different parts parts of the world for solving the critical problem of access to water and sanitation facilities in urban slums.

What do we do?
We provide urban slum dwellers safe, dignified and affordable sanitation by constructing and maintaining toilet facilities where demand for such services is high. We also believe that the solution will provide quantifiable water savings to communities that do not have water and sanitation problems. Sewasan manages the development of the facilities and their use in the community to ensure cleanliness, functionality, steady revenues, improved public health and environmentally responsible handling of waste. 

Why do we do this?
Over the last  decade, many community toilet complexes have been rendered dysfunctional in India due to severe water shortages and drastic drops in the groundwater table. Consequently, slum residents are forced to defecate in open spaces, threatening health and safety.  The women of these communities are prone to various gynecological illnesses and are put at risk of harassment and even rape.  Currently, over 1.8 million people live in slums in Delhi alone. Most face these problems every day.

How are we unique?
We provide an innovative waterless toilet. The toilet is a three-hole squatting pan, modified to suit the Indian way of defecation, set over a composting pit. The toilet diverts urine and wash water through the sewer pipes to the main drain. Feces are decomposed in a cemented composting pit below the toilet structure, preventing groundwater contamination.This method of sanitation consumes less than a liter of water per day for a family and  converts human wastewaterless.jpg to fertilizer and revenue. The  toilet  can be constructed even where high water tables, hard rock or  other conditions prevent construction of regular toilets.

Where do we start?
We are presently working on setting up a pilot project in a slum in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. The pilot project has a potential customer base of 3,500 slum dwellers.

How are we financially sustainable?
Sewasan sees a solid business opportunity with the potential for reasonable financial returns and immense social value.We will use various affordable and flexible subscription models such as pay per use and monthly, individual and family memberships as our main revenue stream. We will also generate revenue by selling the decomposed human feces. This revenue will allow our venture to continue improving the water, sanitation and safety conditions of the slum dwellers. Sewasan will need a capital investment of Rs. 18 Lakh to construct the facility and operate it for 20 months, at which point the venture will break even and will be able to sustain itself. This will cover the costs of construction of 50 toilets, registration, training, operations and maintenance, electricity, water, and the purchase materials. The return on investment after 24 months of operation is expected to be 8 percent, assuming  70 percent of the community of 3,500 people subscribe. Part of the profits will be given back to the community to improve education. The venture will be run through an administrative body that monitors functioning, operations and maintenance of the facility and is responsible for revenue collection and subscription. The administrative body will have community, local NGO and Sewasan board representation.

Is the community a part of the solution?
The community has been part of the solution since the beginning. Numerous interactions helped us come up our design. To promote a feeling of ownership, we ask for a nominal contribution from the community for the construction of the facility. The skill sets of the community are also used in the project's design, construction, operations, administration, maintenance, etc. We believe community involvement is central and aim to strengthen our relationship with the community over time.

How did Acara help?
Acara helped us identify perceived risks of our proposal so we could counter them. The Acara Summer Institute helped us gain a thorough understanding of our business plan.

Who's on the team?
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Emily Gross (civil engineering), Kurtis D. McIntire, E.I.T. (civil/water resources engineering), Laurie McGinley (architecture and sustainable design), Mark A. Edstrom (MBA), Matt Carney (civil engineering, sustainability studies, construction); THE ENERGY & RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Bhumika Khanna (infrastructure management), Radhika Kapoor electronics and communication engineering (MBA, business sustainability), Rahul Raju Dusa (renewable energy and engineering management), Shruti Sehgal (MBA, infrastructure), Shilpy Dewan(MBA infrastructure), Shashaank Shekhar (renewable energy and engineering management)management, Upkari Nath Tripathi (renewable energy and engineering management).

For more information: sewasan@gmail.com

Illustrations courtesy of Sewasan

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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