Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Geography students help Guatemalans capture and clean water

Geography is more than studying a map. A lot more.

For Assistant Professor Matthew Taylor and his courses in DU’s geography department, study goes beyond land and environment. It’s the interaction people have with the planet. And to really teach, Taylor gets students involved, tackling real world problems affecting real people.

“It’s applied scholarship,” Taylor says. “Geography is, in my mind, the studies of humans and their interaction with their environment. We bring together many disparate fields into one science.”

Two challenging projects

Two projects that have captured his imagination, and that of his students, involve problems facing rural villages in Guatemala where people are struggling to find clean, safe water. Both projects provide their own challenges: one in filtering water and the other in capturing clouds.


Getting clean water

For villagers in Guatemala’s lowlands, getting enough water isn’t a problem. Combating E. coli and other waterborne diseases is. Even in villages connected by pipe to mountain springs miles away are plagued with sickness from untreated water.

“You can filter it at a water plant five kilometers away, but you don’t know what’s happened to it in that pipe,” Taylor says. “Or in the cistern where they store it.”

Building water treatment plants on site isn’t financially feasible.

One answer, he says, is in “point of use” filtration, where every home in a village can have its own system. It’s a simple concept, but for rural farmers, even the annual cost of $30 for clay filters is prohibitive. Taylor and his students sought a new plan, something sustainable, cheap and easy for villagers to make themselves.

A sustainable solution

The filtration they settled on is fashioned from cheap plastic buckets, using layers of sand and naturally occurring bacteria to clear toxins and impurities. A properly constructed filter can last years and provide clean water for a family.

Students travel regularly from DU to work with Taylor and Guatemalan community leaders to teach villagers how to make the filters and keep them working. The collaboration helps the local people buy into the project, and by drinking the filtered water, the students build trust.

Taylor says in areas where the filters have been established, the level of E. coli incidents is declining.

“This really is an example of the University of Denver’s stated mission: a private University dedicated to the public good,” he says.

In fact, the program has benefited from funding through DU’s Public Good grants program.


Capturing clouds

The second project Taylor and his classes work on teams them with a Canadian agency helping villagers in high mountain areas of Guatemala collect water during the dry months. There is little rain, but there often is fog in the highlands.

Using a product called FogQuest, students help villagers find the best locations for fog collectors — giant sheets that catch and condense drifting patches of fog into potable water.

Students use their political skills to convince volunteers to help chart local weather, and they use technical savvy to set up accurate, sensitive monitoring equipment.


Guatemala teaches student about disparities

For DU international studies senior Karla Swintz, getting out of the classroom has been engaging, enlightening and inspiring. Swintz, 21, says her Guatemala trip this fall opened her eyes to infrastructure disparities even inside one country, where rural people fend for themselves while other populated areas thrive.

She says Taylor’s holistic approach, showing students all areas of the country, encourages her to think of a two-pronged approach to foreign aid: help people help themselves while pressing governments to commit to long-term collaboration with local people and foreign aid agencies.

Swintz says she’s been inspired to work in a non-governmental aid agency, or in a related field, after graduation next year. She says she wants to get back to impoverished countries and help.

“I’ve always thought an aid agency could come in and build a water plant or a school, but if you can’t show people how to do it themselves while you push their government to provide teachers or help keep that plant running, that’s not an entire answer,” she says. “There’s no better way to learn than to actually be out in the field.”

To view Professor Taylor’s Web site, including a collection of photos from his students’ work in Latin America, go


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