The Good Wall, An Ingenious Conservation Idea From A Bogota Garage

A Bogotá family invented a system to drain rainwater from any rooftop and store it in an 'Ekowall' of plastic bottles.

Students building an Ekumuro
Students building an Ekumuro
María Paula Rubiano

BOGOTÁ — The Alba Torres family has already gotten top global recognition for one bright and simple idea to help support water conservation. But their work continues, recently helped by 30 high school students from in and around Bogota, they are installing another built-in wall system to collect rainwater and drain it into plastic bottles for reuse.

I am even finding websites in Russian explaining how to make an Ekomuro.

I met the father of the family, Ricardo Alba, in his office, where he points out the prize that has helped spread his idea around the world. The prize itself doesn't appear particularly impressive — just a small, wooden box. But it was the World Water Council award, recognizing his Ekomuro — or "ekowall" — rainwater harvesting system, as the most innovative idea of 2015.

Ekomuro won the prize over nine other environmental projects that year, with a system for using recyclable plastic bottles so efficiently and economically to both conserve water and limit bottles winding up floating as trash in the seas. The 2015 prize was a boost to the project, and Ricardo Alba is now taking Ekomuro to Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil, with plans also in Africa. "Look I am even finding websites in Russian explaining how to make an ekomuro, with drawings and instructions, step by step," he says.

A simple and almost self-evident structure

Ekomuro was born in 2008 when Alba was working with his son Ricardo on a solar heater made of recycled materials, for presentation at his school. His corrugated plastic (Kartonplast) heaters were a contraption he had already installed in 15 homes in the southern Puente de Aranda district in Bogotá . "We wanted to complement the water heating project and thought, instead of storing the water in a tank, we could keep it in used plastic bottles. These bottles were later used to make Ekomuro," he says.

The simple and almost self-evident structure is what drives the innovation in this case. Each module consists of 54 soft drink bottles of 2.5 or 3.0 liters, linked with their caps, which are perforated and melded by heat. Water enters the system through tubes on the roof. The first bottles to fill are those with PVC bases, and one bottle is fitted with a tap. Each Ekomuro keeps up to 162 liters of rainwater, but as they are quite compact, a school can install five or six or more of the systems.

Ekumuro in construction in Mandalay Bogotà Photo: Ekomuro H20+ Facebook page

The first wall was installed in 2009 at the school where Ricardo's wife, Nancy Torres, teaches natural sciences. The idea, says Ricardo, was "for the children to build it: the materials are brought in from home or the school, then you explain in a workshop how to build it. They will find some of their problems from physics, chemistry and math."

Now 30 schools in Bogotá have these bottle walls, and the family says it loves to share each stage of the process with students. In 2011, the project received its first award, given by the Colombian education ministry. The schools that installed them won the country's Cultura del Agua (Water Culture) prize that year. The project has won more prizes and recognition since then, including a nomination for Scientific American's Science in Action prize, and a Pepsi Cola prize for environmental innovation in 2013. Pepsi's $5,000 prize allowed 15 Ekomuros to be created on the highest cliffside of Cazucá, a poor neighborhood with no running water, an initiative that was in turn nominated for a UN Habitat prize in 2014.

Built for sharing

By now, Ricardo Alba and his family have lost count of how many places and people have contacted them. But the project is built for sharing. "This is for all the world," Alba says, though he admits he is upset if others make money from it or if he is not mentioned when the project is rewarded. Still, he says, "it's great to see it everywhere."

The latest email to arrive was from Martin Vincent, a scientist from Waterspoutt, an EU-funded project that has brought drinking water to five million Africans using plastic bottles and water that is disinfected by exposure to the sun's rays. Alba shows me the message where Vincent asks how to connect the bottles together in order to build a wall of them exposed to the African sun. Simple ideas are often the ones that travel farthest.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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