Water Power to the People
by Miles Rohan
Bolivian Times, January 6, 2000

Winding along the Yungas Road, nearing the lovely destination of Coroico, you will pass by a flower-lined stream small enough to step across. At a glance, the stream appears just like the hundreds of other streams you passed. Yet, when you look beyond the surface, you’ll find that this stream has the capacity to revolutionize the way people in the Yungas live.

That is because the stream is equipped with a small, simple device that is powered by the region’s most abundant and clean resource – water. Without using electricity or fossil fuel, this device -- called the Watermotor -- just might bring more equality to some of the rural populations of Bolivia and help curb rural immigration to the cities.

Under the mantra of "power to the people," inventor, entrepreneur, and long-time expatriate Ron Davis has recently created the Watermotor to assist rural people living outside of the power grid – currently about half of Bolivia’s population. Realizing the connection between rural poverty and lack of electricity (and in turn, lack of machines): Davis had many goals, one of which was to ease the gap between the haves and have-nots of the region.

People living in remote locations without electricity still use muscle power. The need to generate money to buy anything not produced by the community creates a dependency on cash crops. When everyone is growing the same crops, profits are small for all. By installing Davis’ motor, it may enable those normally reliant on cash cropping to produce a diverse number of goods which can be sold for greater profit.

Davis also hopes to help encourage rural people to stay in their homes, rather than migrate to the already-overpopulated cities. Currently, many people living in Bolivia’s remote regions are forced to relocate – or spend hours commuting to cities – in search of economic survival. This phenomenon often leads to economic and cultural breakdown. By providing production ability and conveniences normally found only within large cities, the Watermotor may enable people to make a good living and have a higher quality of life in their own small villages.

Numerous Possibilities

At his Yungas Road demonstration site, Davis has the Watermotor set up to directly power a table saw which normally functions with an electric motor. With this saw, Davis and his team use the Watermotor to construct bee hives. The hives demonstrate the Watermotor’s ability to enable highly-skilled production in even the most remote locations. With woodworking alone, the possibilities of production increase greatly, including furniture, crafts and construction of homes.

With the capability of producing electricity, Watermotor’s possible impact increases exponentially. Davis explained that, with a common car alternator (of which there are no shortage in the world), enough electricity could be generated to provide local lighting and battery charging. This could perhaps be the beginning of a water power revolution.

Design and Costs

Davis notes that water power as a source of mechanical energy is not a new idea. What is new is a modern, low-cost turbine motor designed specifically for this purpose. For, ironically in an age when nothing seems to be free of electrically-driven machines, the Watermotor is a revival of the way water power was used until the invention of long-distance power lines.

The idea for the Watermotor, Davis said, has been in his mind for about 25 years. But only recently has it been taken to the next level. Davis credits an Internet discussion group devoted to "micro-hydro power" for helping to make the Watermotor a reality.

One of the challenges of producing the Watermotor has been making it affordable for rural people. Two ways of lowering costs have been using recycled materials and keeping production entirely in Bolivia. For about $ 480 the Watermotor can be purchased and owner-installed in one or two weeks. It is conceivable that villages and settlements could quickly recover the investment with production capability, and money saved by making, rather than buying, goods.

Simplicity is the key to the design of the Watermotor. Usually, the Watermotor can be user installed, maintained and repaired. And with only two moving parts, the motor is virtually immune to damage by hard use.

The water used to power the Watermotor is taken from an irrigation canal fed by a small fast flowing stream. The water then enters a plastic pipe above the workshop where the Watermotor is situated. A flow of 400 liters per minute produces 1.25 horsepower at 1850 R.P.M. This power is capable of running a variety of machines. After the water is used to produce power, it is returned to the stream.

It is Davis’ hope that the Watermotor will first be utilized by the rural people of the Yungas, and then by other people living in remote areas around the world. The Watermotor site on the Yungas Road is clearly visible to all passing by, and Davis invites anyone interested in learning more about his invention to stop by and check it out.

With the incredible amount of technological advances occurring in modern society, it is intriguing to think that the Watermotor, a simple mechanism powered by the very blood of our planet, could help empower the poorest and most remote people of the world.