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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
John Renouard, founder and president of WhoLives, bottom right, shows journalists how the Village Drill operates at his home in South Jordan on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

SOUTH JORDAN — Anyone visiting the unremarkable backyard of John Renouard is bound to notice a large, steel machine standing at the edge of the flower garden. The machine is painted blue and yellow and lacks any engines or electronic parts.

But what isn't apparent at first glance are the millions of people across the globe who now have access to clean water, all thanks to this prototype.

The machine is called the "Village Drill," one of many models envisioned by Renouard and developed by BYU students six years ago.

The drill is human-powered, easy to build and, most importantly, capable of drilling up to 295 feet into the ground. That's deep enough to reach clean, unpolluted groundwater almost anywhere in the world.

"The idea is to get water to the people," Renouard said. "Right now, this is the best tool to do that."

He and his team at WHOlives, a nonprofit group in South Jordan, have built 55 drills in 25 countries over the past six years. They brought a second drill into Renouard's backyard for a demonstration to media on Friday.

"There’s very few moving parts, and there’s very few things that could break," Renouard said. "The worst that could happen is it could fall out of the back of a truck and get ran over. But it’s almost all steel, so it would probably still work."

WHOlives estimates more than 1.2 million people can get clean water through wells dug by the Village Drill.

But Renouard is quick to point out that his teams are not the ones digging the wells. Instead, they train local villagers on how to use the Village Drill so they "create this business and become sustainable."

"We want to empower the people in these developing countries," he said. "And they really do come together as a village."

Dream come true

Renouard describes himself as the "furthest thing from an engineer," but that "the Lord needed somebody dumb enough not to know that (the Village Drill) wouldn’t work."

The idea of the drill came to him in a dream after his family visited a poverty-stricken village in Tanzania. He described watching a large group of kids at an orphanage sipping from a single glass of water. Renouard thought the glass might be part of a religious sacrament. Later, he learned that the orphanage could only afford one pitcher of clean water a day.

"The problem was so poignant to me," Renouard recalled. "There we were, in 2010, and we’re still living like this."

After his dream about the drill, and a series of fortuitous connections, BYU students Devin LeBaron, Eric Jammohamed, Jimmy Stacey, Ken Langely, Nathan Toone and Sabin Gautam worked on the design for eight months as a BYU Capstone project.

When the students emailed Renouard the first sketch of the project, he immediately recognized it.

"That was it, that’s what I saw in my dream," he recalled, tearing up. "That’s when I knew that this was supposed to happen."

The drill was "overdesigned," said Chris Mattson, the faculty mentor for the project. But the simplicity keeps the machine "working for many years without trouble."

How it works

The drill needs four people to operate. After building the contraption — which weighs 2,000 pounds — three people spin a game show-esque yellow wheel at the center of the machine that drives the drill bit into the ground.

People can push the wheel with their fingertips, as the drill relies on the "flywheel effect," building up enough rotational energy to keep momentum going quickly.

A fourth person cranks a winch at the back of the machine, an ingenious design that lifts the drill rods and keeps the bit from getting stuck.

Think of an old-fashioned pencil sharpener, Renouard said. Just like putting too much pressure on a pencil breaks the lead inside the sharpener, too much pressure on the drill rods jams the bit into the dirt. The winch keeps the weight from caving in the drilling hole.

When the three-foot rod is completely submerged in the dirt, operators disconnect the rod, spin the bar back up and connect another segment onto the drill.

"You can continuously drill without stopping," Renouard said. "This is the only human-powered drill that doesn’t require you to dig down and pull up the soil and dump it out and dig back in."

When the bit hits water, fluid inside the rods changes density, alerting drill operators. Clean water is usually found between 90 to 150 feet below the surface, and the Village Drill can reach that depth in eight hours.

"It was not by accident that the design looks the way it does, or that it is as simple as it is, that it moves the way it does," Mattson said. "The students worked to that."

Affordable solution

There are many problems with just building a well in a village, Renouard said. Large drilling rigs are expensive and can't reach many rural towns. Cable tools have trouble pushing past rock or sand, a difficulty the Village Drill is specially designed to cut through.

No one feels responsibility for a well if someone else builds it, he continued. And if a well breaks, the villagers have no way of fixing it.

"By thinking that we can 'give' people out of poverty has never worked, it never will work, and it causes incredible harm," he said.

By training locals on drilling and businesses techniques, rural villages can become economically sustainable and have access to clean water. A Village Drill is cheaper, costing $18,000, while large drill rigs easily charge double the amount.

Almost one-fifth of the world's population suffers from water scarcity, according to United Nations statistics. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in places with "absolute" water scarcity.

Renouard said he hopes the Village Drill can change that future. To raise funds for sustainable water projects, WHOlives is holding a benefit concert in Salt Lake City on Oct. 28.

"Before I had the dream about the Village Drill, I had never seen a well drilled before," Renouard said. "It was certainly something worth fighting for."