This seven day English language course will combine lecture/discussion sessions with a great deal of participatory hands-on activities.



Environmentally persistent organic chemical contaminants – such as pesticide runoff, pharmaceutical residues, industrial effluents, manufacturing additives, disinfection by-products, and naturally occurring toxins – threaten the safety of drinking water in communities around the world.

Biochar for water treatment system

Biochar for water treatment system

Exposure to trace quantities of these chemicals lead to cancer, birth defects, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, neurological dysfunction, organ damage, and other acute and chronic health problems.

Water treatment using locally produced biochar adsorbent is a demonstrated affordable, appropriate and sustainable solution for improving drinking water safety.

Workshop Objectives and Format

This workshop will provide participants with comprehensive practical training in the generation and application of biochar adsorbent for control of organic chemical contaminants in low cost household and community water treatment.

Participants will gain technical competence in generation of biochar adsorbent using common local materials and tools, as well as methods for integration of biochar adsorption in multi-barrier treatment systems that address both biological and chemical water contaminants.

Multi-stage water treatment system using biochar

Multi-stage water treatment system using biochar

Lecture/discussion sessions will cover the technical foundations, key concepts and constraints for implementation of household and small community water treatment systems that incorporate biochar adsorption under typical field/developing community circumstances.

Instructors will provide an overview of adsorption science as it pertains to biochar water treatment targeting organic contaminants, and engineering guidelines for implementation of passive (gravity flow) multi-stage treatment systems, including roughing and slow sand biofiltration. Discussions will cover treatment system design, installation and conditioning, unit process maintenance regimes, options for down-cycling and disposal of spent media, and fieldable water quality monitoring metrics and methods.

Lecture/discussion sessions will draw upon laboratory studies, peer-reviewed literature and modeling approaches for using experimental data to inform design of real-world treatment systems. This conceptual discussion will be combined with field experiences and observations to provide participants with a solid practical foundation in water treatment using biochar.

Biochar water treatment system in Karen State, eastern Burma

Biochar water treatment system in Karen State, eastern Burma

Hands-on activities will include:

  • construction of drum ovens, preparation of biomass feedstock, adsorbent biochar generation and post-processing
  • start-to-finish construction and installation of multi-stage portable/emergency water treatment system(s) for control of biological and chemical contaminants


Rapid and largely unregulated agricultural production and industrialization throughout the developing world has impacted community water resources through aquifer depletion and the release of heavy metals and other minerals. Thus human exposure to anthropogenic toxins and geographically-specific geogenic water contaminants such as fluoride and arsenic is on the rise.

This section of the course will look at the human impacts of inorganic contaminants, specifically excessive levels of arsenic and fluoride that plague communities around the globe, and survey currently available methods of remediation before exploring bone char as a potential low-cost media for fluoride remediation.  Utilizing the Independence Watershed region in central Mexico as a lens, participants will learn about the interconnected nature of depleting aquifers and inorganic contaminants as well as their impacts on people and communities. The health consequences of these contaminants are well documented and include dental fluorosis, crippling skeletal fluorosis, kidney disease, cognitive disorders, and various cancers.

Early design of bone char gasifier

Early design of bone char gasifier

Participants will be exposed to a summary of current research, limitations, challenges, and successes regarding bone char as a low-cost system for fluoride adsorption as well as design of a household – point-of-use – bone char system being piloted by Caminos de Agua. 

Participants will also receive hands-on experience of bone char production in low-tech, field deployable, drum gasifiers with retort chambers and learn best practices on gasifier assembly, bone prep, construction of passive solar dryers, production processes and temperature controls, and bone char post-production processing. 

Additionally, students will be exposed to best practices and methods for field testing of fluoride, arsenic, and other common inorganic contaminates.  


In short intensive sessions this course will also cover

Rainwater Harvesting, Safe Storage, & Treatment

Rainwater represents a source of water that is easy to manage and largely free of of synthetic organic chemicals and naturally occurring inorganics – such as arsenic and fluoride – that are contaminating surface and groundwater resources in communities around the globe.  Further, rainwater is a more sustainable source of water for many communities that currently rely on overexploited aquifers and/or rainy season surface water for their consumption needs.

This section will focus on community construction models for gravity fed ferrocement rainwater harvesting storage cisterns and low-tech first flush diverters –  utilizing inexpensive materials found in communities and villages throughout the world. 

In-class discussions will provide tools and information on how to lead and construct ferrocement rainwater cistern projects with local community partners, retrofit existing cisterns for rainwater harvesting in urban settings, calculate rainwater storage capacities, size plumbing, and how to asses contamination concerns for sizing first-flush diverters accordingly.  

Participants will also gain in-depth knowledge on removal of biological contaminates through disinfection and filtration for stored rainwater as well as how those options can be integrated into different rainwater collection and storage systems.  Focus will be given to Caminos de Agua's proven point-of-use ceramic filtration system.  Participants will visit the ceramic filter field production facility and have hands-on practice with molding ceramic filters, colloidal silver treatment, flow-test, system construction, and best practices on how to adapt the open-source technology for communities around the globe.  Additionally, a secondary focus will be given to adapting the slow-sand biofilter - which will be built as part of the biochar section of the workshop -to a ferrocement rainwater cistern. 

Participants will also receive hands-on experience with assembly of first-flush diverters and leaf filters and field trips to see different rainwater harvesting projects/models are planned.  

To learn more about the time of rainwater harvesting system design that will be covered in this course, click here

Community rainwater cistern construction

Community rainwater cistern construction

Finished cistern and first-flush divertor in rural school

Finished cistern and first-flush divertor in rural school

Design of Gravity Fed Water Supply Systems in Mountainous Terrain

This session will focus on field methods to determine design flow rate, obtain topographic data, and calculate tank storage and pipe sizes for gravity flow water systems.  Instruction will be given in how to locate break pressure tanks, air valves, and clean out valves, and establishing a monitoring and maintenance schedule for sustainable operation by community water technicians.

Pumps and Solar-PV Power Systems

“A crash course in solar electrician training for water engineers.”
This session will cover the foundational concepts of electricity and small pumps for water supply. Instruction will be given on how these concepts apply to the design and installation of water pumps and off-grid PV power systems. Discussion topics will include: basics of electricity, voltage drop, transmission cable sizing, three phase vs. single phase systems, sizing of circuit breakers, ground, solar panel arrays and, battery storage systems, inverter selection, grid- or generator- tied systems. Hands on experience with solar pump install and/or repair is planned for the Vía Orgánica ranch and/or a local community rainwater harvesting system.  




This course is designed for participants with some technical background in chemistry, environmental science and engineering, etc., and relevant practical experience in household/community water-sanitation-hygiene (WASH). We encourage participants from development/relief government agency and (I-)NGO workers, WASH practitioners, and university students and faculty in related fields to attend.

The course will involve substantial physical labor in addition to more sedentary lecture/discussion activities. Participants need to be physically fit for performing manual labor tasks outdoors in a warm, dry (desert) sub-tropical climate, and need to be confident in the use of hand and power tools for working with bamboo, wood, metal and plumbing.

Further, San Miguel de Allende is located at more than 2,000 meters (6,500+ feet) above sea level (that's higher than Denver, Colorado!), with a hot and persistently shinning sun.  The Via Organica Ranch - where the workshop is hosted - will require participants to walk uphill daily.  Participants should be prepared for uphill treks