Sometimes, the constraints of print media causes editors and writers to make painful cuts to stories. I had a wonderful conversation with Ann Vodacek, my Brighton neighbor and wife of RIT professor Tony Vodacek about a simple solution that is being used to solve a pervasive problem in Rwanda – using plain water bottles to help purify drinking water with the power of the sun. For space sake, it had to be cut from the print version of my story in the Democrat & Chronicle. I thank both the Vodaceks for all their help with this piece and wish them luck as their work with Rwanda evolves.
Here is the full version of the story.
Tony Vodacek knows his way around a map.
The Brighton resident grew up in Wisconsin and spent summers navigating state and national parks on family camping trips. His wife, Ann Vodacek, describes him as a person who possesses a built-in global positioning system that comes in handy when taking family vacations with their three children in the Adirondacks.
While some people find going to new places disorienting, just hand Vodacek, a Rochester Institute of Technology associate professor, a map and he can locate his destination “in seconds.”
“I never have to ask for directions,” he said.
Throughout his life, Vodacek had an intense interest in maps and the information they reveal. This passion led him to a career in a field called remote sensing, which is the science of obtaining information about geographical areas from a distance, typically from aircraft or satellites.
Vodacek likes to keep and display maps that directly relate to his work. Posted on the door of his office at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at RIT is a relief map of the tiny African country of Rwanda. There are also photos from his last visit and labels from bags of coffee that represent one of Rwanda’s chief exports.
Vodacek’s friendship with former Brighton resident and RIT astrophysics professor Manasse Mbonye has evolved into a partnership between American and Rwandan academics who seek to advance this African country by providing its people with the knowledge to grow an information infrastructure and ultimately improve the way the water and land are used to create a stable economy.
Mbonye arrived in America as a Rwandan refugee child in the 1960s. After decades of living in America, he returned to Rwanda this year to accept a position as director of academics at the National University of Rwanda.
During his five visits to Rwanda — his most recent trek took place earlier this year — Vodacek met with Mbonye and many government dignitaries, and listened to their visionary optimism for Rwanda. The Rwandan people are trying to reconcile with their recent past and seek to advance this landlocked country with few natural resources by boosting its technology infrastructure and agricultural practices.
“Rwanda is striving to become self-reliant. It no longer wishes to be sustained by institutions like the World Bank. Mbonye said there is no other way for Rwanda (to succeed) except through education. The alternative to this is a dark path that has already been traversed,” said Vodacek, referring to the genocide in the mid-1990s where tribal divisions led to the deaths of nearly 1 million Rwandans.
Now, Vodacek is leading a multi-disciplinary international team of scientists and graduate students — backed with a $350,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — on a two-year survey of the Lake Kivu system in Rwanda to collect scientific measurements to learn how human activity is threatening biodiversity. Vodacek and his graduate students will study satellite data collected over 40 years to unlock the story of this lake that rests among volcanoes and a mountain gorilla reserve, a lake that one day might erupt from volcanic activity to cause a natural disaster.
“Just like meteorologists use satellite data to forecast weather changes, I use remote sensing to forecast environmental changes,” said Vodacek.
If Rwanda is going to be a technologically advanced country, it is going to need more power. This power can be found at the bottom of Lake Kivu. The lake’s depth is 1,574 feet with fresh water above and saltier, denser water resting on the bottom. The saltwater and sediment at the bottom of the lake trap large reserves of carbon dioxide and methane, sort of the way gas is trapped in an uncorked champagne bottle. For now, the waters are calm. But according to geological studies taken from layers of lake sediment, the lake is overdue for a phenomenon called “turning over.”
Geological studies have found that about every 1,000 years, underwater disruptions in the bottom of Lake Kivu — such as a volcano or an earthquake — caused the denser, gas-laden waters to rise to the surface and release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the valley.
Those releases can be deadly. Vodacek pointed to an incident in Cameroon, where in 1986, a plume of carbon dioxide escaped from Lake Nios and suffocated 1,500 people while they slept.
If such a disruption would happen now, two million people living in the area would be at risk of suffocation. Possibly adding to the mix of disruption to the water is human activity like farming and deforestation. It is here where Vodacek’s research will be applied to see if human intervention might be another reason why gas pressure builds at the bottom of the lake.
Another man-made event that was evident in satellite images was the 1994 genocide. Photographs from space showed forested land in Rwanda that had nearly disappeared as fires were started and displaced people cut down wood for fuel during and after the genocide.
Whether or not human intervention will cause Lake Kivu to release noxious gasses, Vodacek did not need a satellite image to see evidence of deforestation around the lake due to farming practices and the burning of forests during Rwanda’s civil war.
As Vodacek drove along the shores of Lake Kivu, it was also easy to see just how hard it is to farm in a country that hardly has any flat land.
“People are trying to scratch out a living as subsistence farmers on deforested mountains. It looked like some of the farmland was nearly vertical in some areas,” observed Vodacek.
After decades of losing trees, the Rwandan government is studying ways to reforest its land. Remote sensing can help the country explore its options as it weighs the needs of growing food on farmed land versus protecting land and water quality by replanting trees. Should reforestation be widespread and allow for intermittent areas of farmland, or should some tracts of land be densely developed leaving other parts to turn over back to nature? Remote sensing over time can help study these scenarios and answer these questions.
“I’m excited to see what patterns and changes that will come about as Rwanda moves to reforest its land. This is all a very long term experiment and we are only at the beginning of it,” said Vodacek.
In any case, planting more native trees can only improve the quality of the water in Lake Kivu. Deforestation coupled with farming causes soil erosion, nutrient depletion and water runoff into the lake. These practices make for poor drinking water quality leading to water borne diseases especially among Rwandan’s children. It is this issue that has caught the attention of Vodacek’s wife, Ann.
A social worker by trade, Ann is in the beginning phases of working with Rwandans she has met through her husband’s work to improve drinking water by a method called Solar Water Disinfection, or SODIS. Used successfully in other countries like Kenya and India, it is a method as simple as killing harmful bacteria in drinking water by filling up plastic water bottles and leaving them to sit in the sun for six hours.
It’s that simple. The hard part, according to Ann, is gaining the trust and changing the habits of rural villagers.
Ann listened to the frustrations of a young Rwandan doctor who spent time in the United States to complete his residency.
“Rwandans who are studying medicine are trying to go back to their villages and teach mothers that it is not normal for children to suffer from swollen bellies or diarrhea. But it is going to take trust and some education for villagers to change this way of thinking,” said Ann. Improved health among Rwandan villagers can only lead to overall quality of life for the whole country, she added.