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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 16, 2010

From New York to Tanzania:  Well water flows across continents

By Saranac Hale Spencer

Child’s play is powering an area school and will soon pump water for a school in Tanzania.

In 2008, Karen Cavanaugh began a program backed by the Sabre Companies in New Scotland, which she owns with her husband.  Sabre will help sponsor playgrounds at the Woodland Hill Montessori School in East Greenbush and the Sinai Primary School in Tanzania that will pump water.

She got the idea when she traveled with her children, who attend the Montessori school, on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History to see the “Water: H2O = Life” exhibition.  The display threads together the sometimes disparate themes related to water — from describing the way that wood frogs freeze in the winter to the effect of damns on river ecosystems.

Its broad message is that people should be responsible with their use of water

“I think the point that the world’s water cycles through the atmosphere, the oceans, the rivers...and in the scheme of the world’s global water cycle, we are all downstream from somebody else,” said Dr. Eleanor Sterling, the exhibition’s curator, of what she hopes visitors will learn.  “It doesn’t matter where or what it comes from, or where it goes to physically, in this tiny part of the global climate cycle, but the fact that these water molecules are all recycling through the system means that we are, in fact, inheriting water that’s been used by somebody else. And water’s a universal solvent so it carries pollutants quite easily, and for that and many reasons I think we need to be thinking about ourselves as part of the global water cycle, and what effect we can have on that cycle.”

The uneven distribution of clean drinking water around the world figures heavily in the exhibition.  One method for pumping water in the rural parts of developing countries without infrastructure is the PlayPump, which pumps water from a well to a holding tank by the power of children on a merry-go-round.

Cavanaugh looked at her husband and said, “You can do that.”  The couple runs the Sabre Companies, which include technology and service companies that address biological and chemical contamination and pollution — one of the company’s initiatives is providing clean water, Cavanaugh said.

Her idea was to pair an American school with a school that doesn’t have access to clean water, to create a cultural exchange as well as a hands-on science curriculum while providing a water source that would allow more African children to stay in school.

Woodland Hills chose a school of about 700 students in rural Tanzania that had its nearest water source two miles away, Cavanaugh said.  In 2008, some of the teachers from the American school and engineers from Sabre went to Tanzania.

On returning, they showed pictures of the Tanzanian school and the first question from a young Montessori student was, “Why are they so happy?”  It led to an interesting conversation, Cavanaugh said, since the kids in Tanzania had very few material things — they played soccer with a ball they had made by tying together rags.  The Tanzanian students love school, though, she said, and they are happy to go.  Of their American counterparts, Cavanaugh said, “The kids were very touched by that.”

Part of the cultural exchange, Cavanaugh explained, is that students at each grade level will be given a topic on which to write an essay — the American students will write in English and the Tanzanian students will write in Swahili, then they will work on translating the papers into their own language.

The first playground, designed by Sabre, was built at the Woodland Hill school and Cavanaugh hopes to build the playground in Tanzania this summer.  Before that, she has plans to build a working model at the Schenectady Museum.

“They can’t fumble with supplies over there,” said Kerry Orlyk, executive director of the museum, of building the project in Tanzania.  Building the model at the museum will ensure that they know what exactly they’ll need in Africa.

The museum will use the playground to teach children about the science of energy, letting them see the results of their own power, Orlyk said.

The project in Tanzania will provide a well, pump, storage system, and electricity.  It is expected to pump up to 10,000 gallons of water a day.  Since the lack of water is related to so many other issues there, Cavanaugh said, “The conclusion was, they needed water first.”

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