Science - June 5, 2014

Packing list for Kabul: four shirts and a membrane filter

Student Zia Karimi has been using his Wageningen knowledge to build a water purification plant for a slum in Kabul. After years of preparation the project is nearing completion: his ticket is ready.

With a suitcase full of switches, metres, cables and pressure pumps, Zia Karimi will take the plane to Afghanistan at the end of May. In Kabul his partner organi­zation will be waiting for him, says Karimi. They have the papers with which to convince the customs officers of this traveller’s good intentions, in spite of the dubious contents of his luggage. ‘All those spare parts…’, smiles Karimi. ‘Imagine it was an attack.’


But what Karimi has in mind is far from destructive. The material he is taking with him to the land of his birth is for putting together a membrane filter system.  With it, Karimi (29), an Environmental Sciences graduate from Wageningen University, wants to provide slum dwellers in Kabul with clean drinking water. In 2012 he completed the first phase of his project Water4Tomorrow: he had a well drilled in Khaje Bughra. This was sorely needed because the majority of the 10,000 residents of this poor neighbourhood of Kabul have to walk kilometres to find clean drinking water. Every year hundreds of children in Khaje Bughra die of diseases related to insufficient or poor quality water. The daily trek to a distant water supply, often a task for children, claims its victims too, because of the dangerous Afghan roads.
Karimi’s well now provides about 1000 people with water for washing and bathing. But it is not drinkable yet, as it contains too many minerals that make it unfit for consumption.

Karimi is returning to Afghanistan this spring to make the water drinkable. With all the parts he needs to build his purification plant – the size of an IKEA kitchen – under his arm.  Those pipes? ‘They could go in a tube perhaps.’ And the cost of taking extra baggage? ‘I am taking fewer clothes. About four T-shirts.’

Taliban era

Karimi was born and brought up in Kabul. ‘I went to school there and experienced the difficulties of the Taliban era. Some of my family still live there. When he was 18, he emigrated to the Netherlands with his mother, younger brother and sisters. His father had already been working in Leeuwarden for a few years. ‘Once I was in the Netherlands I could concentrate on my education. The result is not bad,’ says Karimi. ‘I want to help people who do not have so much. I feel more Dutch than Afghan, but my knowledge of the Afghan language and culture was useful in this project.’
With the help of the Mawlana Foundation, Karimi’s partner organization in Kabul, the project leader was able to win the confidence of the authorities and the slum dwellers. ‘If you don’t have a big name such as UNICEF, you are not immediately welcomed with open arms,’ says Karimi. ‘It was quite a job to get in contact with the right people.’ Working through a local organization made it easier. In the end he was even assisted by the Afghan ministry of Water and Energy Supplies.

In Kabul he stayed behind the scenes as much as possible. ‘I want this project to be seen as something which the people had set up themselves. So that other people will get the feeling they could do something for others, instead of always depending on others.’ The slum dwellers them­selves succeeded in applying to the government for the electricity cable needed for the water supply. Karimi, beaming: ‘I have seen people praying out of gratitude. And I have seen them getting up and going into action. That’s a good feeling.’


This month Karimi leaves for Kabul with his equipment. The technical design is based on a purification system set up in Haiti by Leo Groendijk, a former teacher of Karimi’s at VHL University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden.  Under Groendijk’s supervision, Karimo drew up his project plan a couple of years ago. With the help of the Farda Foundation, he found enough funding in Kabul to drill the well.  But he did not have the 20,000 euros needed for the next step, the purification plant. By now, Karimi can install the plant for one quarter of that sum. He does not have to buy the equipment at a high price from a company, but can build it himself using the knowledge he acquired at the department of Environmental Technology (ETE) at Wageningen UR. Once Karimi has put together his filtration system in Kabul, three people will be trained to maintain the plant.

If the Wageningen student has his way, 13 of these systems will be established in Kabul to provide clean water for about 30,000 people. Eventually he would also like to establish a water school in Kabul, and he is hoping for the support of Wageningen UR in this. ‘I am working on an outline of how I picture it. As a student I am not in a strong negotiation positon how, but I shall do my best.’ Karimi also still has to write his thesis and complete an internship. Is there still time for that? Laughing: ‘When I get back from Kabul, the priority is graduating. First get that degree, and the rest will come later.’

Reverse osmosis

The groundwater in Kabul contains too much calcium carbonate, sulfate and fluoride. To make it drinkable, Karimi uses reverse osmosis (RO) membrane filtration. This pushes the water under pressure through a sieve with miniscule holes in it. The holes are so small that only water molecules go through them. An antiscalant is used to prevent chalk deposits from building up on the membrane. Pre-filters are also used to protect the RO filter from rough particles.

organizations involved

Water4Tomorrow is funded by Cordaid, Aqua for All, Wetsus, the Fardá foundation and the Water for Everyone foundation. Organizations providing backstopping are the Mawlana Foundation and Wageningen UR.