The Case for ETAP, A Special Technical School

Drinking Water Access in the Developing World: The Case for ETAP, A Special Technical School

This article by APLV co-founder Gilles Corcos was published in the September 2010 issue of  Water Resources Impact, a publication of the American Water Resources Association,  and is reprinted here by their gracious permission.

Agua Para La Vida (APLV, "Water for Life" in English) is one of many NGOs intent upon helping the rural population of developing countries handle the problem, both old and urgent, of access to unpolluted water. APLV has been working for 24 years in the Central American country of Nicaragua, but since 1995 it has adopted a point of view which, while perhaps not unique, is worth presenting because it leads to a development model that is far from the usual ones.

APLV, which considers access by all people to clean water as a basic (albeit massively denied) right, recognizes that material, technical, and administrative help cannot be expected to come to poor countries from abroad forever. An important element in shortening the time required for poor rural populations to be supplied with decent drinking water is to maximize the contribution that the local population itself can make to this development. The end goal is in fact to ensure that the development units created in the developing countries become autonomous.

It is widely understood that in rural settings the bulk of the manual labor required to build water systems must and does come from the benefiting population. But many of these water systems require technical knowledge. That knowledge might in principle be provided by local engineers but they are costly, too few, and in any case, the planning, design, and building supervision needed for these village systems turns out to require a mix of technical training and familiarity with campesino (i.e. rural) life. So 16 years ago, APLV bet that selected youngsters with campesino backgrounds could be trained to master the techniques required to select, design, procure, budget, and supervise the construction of village water systems even when these systems involve technically advanced features. This was the beginning of our special technical school, ETAP (Escuela Técnica de Agua Potable, or Potable Water Technical School).

This is a work-study school in the sense that all the ETAP students are also given important responsibilities within the field water projects that are designed and executed by APLV. It is located in Rio Blanco, in the Department of Matagalpa.

The training must squarely acknowledge the reality of public rural education in the primary and secondary schools of many impoverished countries: there, a very elementary academic level is the rule.

As a result, the technical training period needs be fairly long, (2.5 to 3 years), and much individual attention needs be allowed for (small classes). Students spend approximately 40% of their instructional time in the field and 60% in the classroom. APLV technicians often serve as field instructors and the school is directed by, and most of the classroom teaching done by volunteer engineers from abroad. Students acquire the mathematical and engineering facility necessary to do technical work on water systems and graduate with a fully-accredited degree, with the title of “Hydraulic Technician.” A syllabus (Spanish only) and more detailed school information (English and Spanish) can be downloaded from

Given the low proficiency of the entering students, tools for the transfer of technological competence must be thought anew. Here the role of the computer is decisive: while the young technicians-to-be will almost always remain slow at mathematical manipulations they are almost invariably adept at the use of computer programs so that the necessary bridge to that proficiency is the creation of special computer programs which, for the user, short circuits involved mathematical or physical developments. The creation of such programs and their assimilation by ETAP students is one of the specialties of Agua Para La Vida and ETAP and naturally these programs become preferred tools of our project designers who are invariably graduates of ETAP.

Throughout the course of study at ETAP, the principles on which the programs are based and elementary examples of their application are presented in parallel with the computer programs.

There are of course other areas of training (reinforced concrete construction, general hydraulics, topography and computer-generated map making, maintenance, procurement and logistics, elements of accounting and budget making, report writing etc.) that are handled by more conventional means.

The most widely used APLV programs are briefly described below.

NeatWork is a distribution network tool specifically designed for gravity systems serving typical developing world rural conditions and minimizing material cost. This set of two integrated programs first proposes to the technician a design that is statistically optimized. It then offers a simulator that rapidly compiles the flow rates (according to the proposed design or any other) at all the outlets under a very large set of alternate realistic scenarios and provides the statistics of the performance of each outlet. This allows the operator to gauge the design and to modify it if it fails some of the constraints placed on it performance.

For a system including a hundred water outlets at very different elevations , once the topography is specified , the necessary time to design the network, obtain  complete statistics of the flow rate of each faucet and to modify the sizing  if indicated vary from 20 minutes to 2 hours for a technician with a minimum of experience and only slightly more if he has none.

Air In Pipes is a conduction line design tool that automatically prescribes the diameters, gauge, and order of placement of the pipes as well as the precise location of those automatic air release valves that are strictly necessary (according to newly developed hydraulics) to evacuate air blocks. This program also provides a design with minimum material cost.

For a conduction line even prone to the formation multiple air pockets, the time required for a complete design does not exceed ten minutes.

Abridge is an Excel program for the automatic design of the components of even large suspension pipes. The execution of this program also requires only a few minutes.

These programs not only facilitate the training of competent technicians but also allow a much higher level of performance for the water systems by combining strict conformity with the required performance with minimum material cost.

As soon as these programs have been thoroughly tested in the field, they are made freely available to one and all either by direct access from the APLV website, ( or through request by mail ( This is the first way by which APLV facilitates the duplication of centers of development of potable water systems.

Now, while the number of ETAP graduates is limited, it exceeds the needs of Agua Para La Vida itself, so that most of these graduates are available to local NGOs engaged in similar development and to other organizations (e.g., government agencies such as  municipalities) that undertake their own water projects. This is a second way by which APLV facilitates the multiplication of poles of water development expertise.

Can the value of ETAP be assessed objectively? We believe that the answer is clearly “Yes.” We have repeatedly handed over to fresh ETAP graduates, both men and women, the full responsibility of a new water project from feasibility assessment to completion and performance evaluation and we have found that these graduates needed very little advice from our more experienced technicians.

So ETAP works. It is relatively expensive because it handles only a few students (generally eight to twelve at a time) and because it admits candidates on the basis of their ability and dedication, regardless of their means, which are almost always nil. It makes it possible for these students to remain in school for the required prolonged stay by providing them with free tuition, room, and board unless they are sponsored.

ETAP needs and deserves your support as a pioneering experiment in technology transfer and in-country capacity building. Surprisingly  the twin features of a technical school designed for a wide selection of the population of countries needing access to drinking water, and the systematic development of computer-aided design programs are very rarely found elsewhere. They constitute a model worth emulating.


Dr. Gilles Corcos
Emeritus Professor of Engineering
University of California, Berkeley
Co-founder, Agua Para La Vida