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Alberta Order of Excellence member David Manz

David Manz PhD, P.Eng

"Globalization means that we’re part of the community of the earth, and every person on this planet depends on other people. So become part of the program, become a part of the global community somehow."

David Manz’s innovations and passions focus on water, the most essential of human needs. He is a world-renowned expert in the field of irrigation engineering. He invented and champions the Manz BioSand Water Filter, internationally recognized as an affordable and effective technology that provides safe water for people around the world.

Dr. David Harold Manz was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1947. He grew up on a small farm, learning a hands-on approach to life, and quickly discovered a natural love of science. He also learned a Canadian prairie tradition: if something on the farm breaks down, you take it apart, figure out what went wrong, then fix it.

It’s no surprise then, that after high school, David enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan’s Agricultural Engineering program, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree. Drawn to water studies, he stayed at the U of S to earn a Master of Science degree in hydrology. This provided David with an appealing blend of the calculated nature of engineering and the subjective twists inherently involved in water studies.

During his time in university, David met his wife, Nora. In 1974, they moved to Edmonton when David accepted a position as a flood forecasting engineer with Alberta Environment.

In 1975, David decided to shift paths. In addition to working as an independent consultant on various water-related projects, including water and wastewater treatment, water supply engineering and irrigation engineering, he turned toward academia as an instructor in the Environmental Studies Program at Lethbridge Community College. David enjoyed his time at the college and after five years, sought a new challenge, earning a PhD at the University of Alberta.

It was during his time as an Assistant Professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Civil Engineering that David’s reach extended internationally. In 1988, through an affiliation with the University of Calgary’s division of International Development, David travelled to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. He witnessed firsthand how those in poverty lacked access to safe water—not only for drinking, but for bathing, doing the dishes and other daily purposes that those in more developed regions take for granted. Without safe water, disease cycles are perpetuated, often resulting in avoidable deaths. In David’s experience, without safe water, people are unable to realize their full potential.

David grasped the depth of the issue in these countries, understanding that there were millions upon millions of other people similarly situated across the world. Just like his days on the farm, David was driven to repair a system that clearly was not functioning. He was determined to find a way of providing clean water at the household level to those who needed it the most.

In 1989, David started work on what would eventually become the world-renowned Manz BioSand Water Filter (BSF). He examined previous filter systems to determine why they had failed so that he could learn how to fix their faults. His analysis showed that previous filters, based on a concept called slow sand filtration, had two main flaws: first, there was no way to stop and start the flow of water; second, protection was required for a biological layer that was necessary in the filtration process. Aided by a group of fourth-year engineering students, and using his own financial resources, he started working on the technology.

His initial creation was built relatively inexpensively and with commonly available materials. By 1991, David had the opportunity to test his prototype and was pleasantly surprised to find that it exceeded his expectations. The filter operated as it should, and appeared to be adaptable for household use.

The next step involved its application in the real world. Initial funding from the Pan American Health Organization enabled David to travel to Nicaragua in 1993 with one of his graduate students. They travelled to local markets to gather materials, and to the river to collect sand for filtration. They installed the systems in four homes, eagerly waiting to see if they would work and, just as importantly, whether the families would use them. Thankfully, the filters worked as planned and the users were thrilled with the results. They immediately began feeling healthier and also shared their new-found clean water supply with their neighbours.

David returned to the University of Calgary hoping to enhance the filter’s design and facilitate large-scale adoption. In 1994, another grant allowed the installation of 60 BSFs in Nandaime, a small town in Nicaragua. Soon after installing the filters, a cholera outbreak devastated much of the country, but the people of Nandaime were spared because of their access to safe water.

From this point on, David took it upon himself to champion this simple and practical solution internationally. In 1995, David patented the BSF, but took a humanitarian rather than entrepreneurial approach to the venture. He sacrificed potential personal wealth in favour of the satisfaction of helping those in need of life’s most sustaining commodity, safe water.

David worked tirelessly to introduce the BSF to remote communities in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Indonesia, Chile, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. All this was made possible with significant support from Samaritan’s Purse Canada, Rotary Clubs and the Government of Canada through the International Development Research Centre. Encouraged by Canada Food and Agriculture (PFRA), a company was formed in the 1990s to commercialize the filter to provide safe water to those in rural and remote Canadian communities.

Part of the filter’s success is that it is low-cost, low-maintenance and requires no electricity, making adoption an easy process. But that success has also, and perhaps most importantly, been due to David Manz’s eagerness to share the technology. By making the design open and freely available to others, he has spurred the technology’s adoption to the benefit of millions.

In 2000, David stepped down from his tenured position at the University of Calgary to focus on commercializing the filter technology in both domestic and international markets on a full-time basis. In 2001, he co-founded the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) to carry on his humanitarian work. The Centre’s mission is to teach people how to use a simple and affordable technology to get safe drinking water into their own homes, along with the enhanced sanitation and hygiene it offers.

Over the past 30 years, between the creation of the BSF, the training of numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the founding of CAWST, David’s work has resulted in the construction of over two million BioSand filters in nearly every developing country world-wide. CAWST, together with its partners, has facilitated the construction of 910,000 BioSand filters in 74 countries, giving 6.5 million people access to safe drinking water. Samaritan’s Purse and their partners, numerous individuals, and other NGOs trained directly by David, and the individuals and groups they were then able to train, produced the remaining approximately one million filters.

It is safe to say that thousands of BioSand filters are still constructed every day and David’s work continues. He is nearing completion of a smaller version of the BSF which will make household adoption even easier.

David’s career has also shown his dedication to helping people understand the impacts of climate change, and, in turn, motivating them to take action. With this in mind, he remains with the University of Calgary as a continuing education instructor on the topics of global warming and climate change. David has also had a direct impact in mitigating the environmental impacts of numerous infrastructure projects in Alberta including the Oldman River Dam, Calgary International Airport Runway project and the Exshaw Water Treatment Plant.

David has received many honours for his work, including the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation ASTech Award for social impact, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta’s (APEGA) Project Achievement Award, the Export Achievement Award for Corporate Social Responsibility presented by the University of Calgary and Calgary Economic Development, the University of Calgary Internationalization Achievement Award and the Alberta Emerald Foundation’s Individual Commitment Award. The University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering has inducted him into the Alumni Wall of Honour and designated him the C.J. Mackenzie Distinguished Lecturer. He was recently selected by the Calgary Herald editorial staff as one of the “20 most compelling Calgarians.”

David continues to dedicate significant time and effort in realizing his dream of providing safe water to those in need around the world. While in his spare time, he enjoys gardening, pottery, music and cooking, his greatest joy is being with his wife Nora, son Aaron, daughter in-law Karen and granddaughter Alex.