Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Jabor, Jaliut Atoll, RMI


February 23, 2110

Jabor, Jaliut Atoll, a village with a population of 1023 people (including 400 boarding students at the Southern Islands High School) was running out of water; there has been little or no rain for months and everyone was very worried. The town was desperate enough for water that they were ready to ship in desalinated water at $3/gallon from Majuro, 125nm away.

I asked Sylvester, the Associate Mayor, why doesn’t the village make it’s own water? He pointed to two 8’x20’ long shipping containers 100’ from his office, and said that the containers were water makers (reverse osmosis desalination system) that were a gift from Canada, but hadn’t been run for several years. The one man who had been trained by the Navy to operate them had died 3 years earlier, and no one else knew how to run them. I told him that water makers were very simple machines, and he said that if I wanted to give it a try to get them running, go ahead.

Sylvester and I assembled a crew of 8-10 guys, with the Superintendent of the Power Plant (the single 250kw generator that provided power for the village), his power plant crew and various other men from the village who joined in to help tackle the job. Each container had about 10 doors with padlocks on them, and was virtually rusted shut. There were no keys in the village. The Super and his crew brought what tools that they had from the power plant, I brought a bag of additional tools from Starr, and we proceeded to pry the doors open. In some cases the hinges were so rusty that they broke right off. We found the containers packed with spare parts, portable pumps for salt water feed from the lagoon, new membranes still in pickling juice in sealed containers, and tons of junk.

We emptied out both containers and made an inventory of all of the parts that were still usable, and it looked like there were enough pieces that we could make one of the water makers work by robbing parts from the other. We found the operations manuals in a stack about 6” high and then went to work on starting the 40kw generator sets that were built into each container.

The water makers required 208/3phase power, and my first thought was to power the water makers from the town power plant, but the Super explained to me that the power pant was 480/3phase and the one step down 208 transformer burnt up years ago; the only way we were going to be able to power the water makers was by using the built-in GenSets. We scrounged up a couple of 12v car batteries in order to provide 24v to the starter. These water makers had to have been designed by an Electrical Engineer who knew how to guarantee full employment for himself and 5 more guys. They were so complicated that every valve and every function was electronically activated by motor control valves, which were in turn powered by tiny relays, which in turn were energized by small plastic European rotary and toggle switches, which were fed through 16-18 gauge wire. In trying to activate the starter, we found that the salt air ruined the toggle and rotary switches. The air-cooled German Diesel Engine had not one, but four, separate solenoids to start the engine. There was no operations manual for the engine. Why four solenoids? I haven’t a clue.

I proceeded to jump-start across one of the solenoids and got the diesel running, but it would die after about 3-4 minutes. The fuel pump and hand primer were both in good working order, but I was getting no return fuel from the injectors. After double-checking that the fuel pump was giving positive fuel pressure into the injector pump, we concluded that in all probability that the “O” rings on the delivery valves had solidified, and the injectors were being starved. They would get enough fuel to start, but then would just die.

At the same time we were rebuilding the salt water feed pumps, assembling hoses and pipes to get water from the lagoon, and preparing to re-assemble the membranes into their 6” diameter, 1” thick stainless steel tubes.

Obviously without power nothing was going to happen, so we went back to square one and scouted the town trying to figure out how to get 208v/3phase power, to no avail. These guys were smart and hard working, clearly motivated by the desire to provide water for their village. After two days of effort we finally decided to quit.

My thoughts were that whoever donated these water makers to the village should be ashamed of themselves. When desalination can be such a simple process, and to build machines that require a team of engineers to operate them, they are doing a dis- service to good people who are definitely in need. There should be a hard and fast rule that whomever is sitting in their office making the decision to donate this equipment should be able to operate it themselves with ease. I really enjoyed working with these guys and felt like I had failed them. Everyone was very disappointed; the village is very worried that they will run out of water soon. One of these water makers could have produced more than 500 gallons/hour and taken care of the whole village.

I would like to thank:

Sylvester Amram, A/ Mayor of Jabor

Helkena Lani, Superintendent of the Power Plant



Tommy Sylvenious

And all of the others whose names I did not write down AND to the women who made a delicious dinner for the whole crew and for Sharry and I.


Ps-I’ve been thinking about this problem and I think if we had a 208volt/100amp/3phase transformer, good welding machine for stainless, some high pressure valves and a few other little parts that these water makers could be made much more simple and could be made to run and service the village. Maybe I can get back there next year to help.
  • Viktor Grabner
    Posted at 16:10h, 13 March Reply

    Hey Don,
    we read your watermaker story with great excitement, too bad you couldn’t help get it going. Agree that the key thing is to get power to it, and then work “downstream” from there.

    How does the island produce its power? What fuel does it use and how does it get it?

  • Dean H Stabbert
    Posted at 20:07h, 13 March Reply

    Hi Don- Sherri,
    Dean your Nephew, Mom sent me the story knowing that I deal with these RO units- the one there if over 5 years old and from what I have read probably is would be scrap as there are no parts for those type units anylonger (outdated)
    I suggest you call GE RO unit outlet in Kirkland WA, they may even do it Pro Bono for the PR. but I would start there- there unit size to feed that Pop. is now only about 4 foot by 2.5 feet high- there are US Gov Surplus you can purchase (Online address) http://www.airtowater.com/1osmo.htm To whom I would also contact to see if they could get the Military to drop one there. but those units(and they are hearty ones) would be enough to feed 4-5 x the pop more than likely and I am just doing this by rule of thumb so they would need to clear it. But I would start with GE as they could use the PR looking at their stocks. LOL- {you can also go to my website [USAsiaLogistics.com] for more answers and tech solving in my RO pages- though I imagine there is improper feed filtering for the unit to operate properly if it ever will and would work towards new ones with by annual filters and/or auto reverse flush systems} good luck

    Have a good voyage

  • Tana
    Posted at 15:44h, 14 March Reply

    Hi, I have just found your post and thought I would send on to you this video from TED.com. It is a video of a British fellow named Michael Pritchard and his water filtration system. I am sure these folks could benefit from a couple of these larger jerry-can sized containers. It is a brilliant system he has.


  • Dean H. Stabbert
    Posted at 02:24h, 15 March Reply

    Let me see about calling in a favor with GrahamTek RO Systems here in Singapore

  • DHS
    Posted at 03:01h, 15 March Reply

    I sent some messages to my friends at GrahamTek Ind. Maybe they can get someone interested-

Post A Comment