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Water outreach efforts

Engineers Without Borders-USA (www.ewb-usa.org) is a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide to improve their quality of life. According to the organization, this partnership involves implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students.

More than 160 colleges and universities in the United States now have or are establishing EWB-USA chapters. In addition, more than 50 professional chapters have been established nationwide. Following are reports about international projects conducted recently by two student chapters.

Cleaner water in Kenya
A team from the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst chapter of EWB-USA recently returned from Kenya where the students began implementing a carefully designed plan to bring clean drinking water to more than 3,000 subsistence farmers. This trip follows a planning trip that the UMass Amherst chapter took last year.

For two weeks, the volunteers worked with residents from the village of Namawanga, measuring water quality, assessing sites for future wells, grading topsoil, and fencing out livestock to improve water sanitation. Villagers usually get water from springboxes, or concrete retaining walls built into hillsides to collect groundwater.

"The final clean water design that we settled on was to improve the springboxes and make them secure from animals polluting them," says Tom Chase, president of the EWB UMass Amherst campus chapter. "We didn’t increase the existing amount of water but focused on making sure the water caught by the springboxes was clean and healthy."

The eight-person group also distributed supplies for schools and an orphanage, including toys and science textbooks, and passed on practical knowledge about safe ways of storing, collecting, and using water. EWB-USA worked closely with the predominately Quaker village, where issues of public concern are discussed with considerable ceremony in outdoor meetings.

"Picture a group of tables with a row of women lined up on one side, a row with the subchief and some men, a row of kids, a Kiswahili translator, and us," says Professor John Tobiason of the department of civil and environmental engineering at UMass Amherst. "That’s how decisions are made."

The UMass EWB team comprised Tobiason; six engineering students, including Chase, Chris Arsenault, Molly Cronin, Julie Gagen, Elsbeth Hearn, and Mary Serdakowski; and professional engineer Eric Lehan of Evenflow Engineering, Inc., in Feeding Hills, Mass.

"We try to explain the science and skills to the villagers as we work with them," says Gagen, vice president of the campus chapter. "For example, when improving springboxes, first we delegate some work on the first one, then we work together on the next one, and then we come to the point where the villagers are doing it all. And we leave equipment behind so they can improve more springboxes when we aren’t in the village."

During the recent visit, UMass EWB upgraded four springboxes, some as old as 30 years, and provided the village’s water technical committee with supplies and training to complete improvements on two others. As Gagen explains, teaching practical water science is an important part of the project in Kenya. "The most satisfying aspect of the trip for me was being able to teach the girls in the secondary school about groundwater flow. They were so happy just to have the opportunity to spend an afternoon watching us organize our water samples. One girl was particularly interested in engineering, and she was brilliant."

"It’s their project," Arsenault points out. "We’re here to support them. We bring technical know-how and some resources, and we assist, but we leave it up to them."

The next phase of UMass EWB’s projected five-year involvement in Kenya is another visit to Namawanga to drill wells at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000 each. That trip will take place in either the summer of 2007 or January 2008, depending on the pace of donor support.

Water supply in Honduras
Ten students and two professors from The Grove School of Engineering at The City College of New York (CCNY) travelled to Honduras in January to build a new water system for a rural community there. The trip culminates a year-long project by the CCNY EWB-USA chapter, which not only planned and implemented the project, but also raised $33,000 to cover its cost.

The Honduran community, Nueva Suiza, with a population of approximately 350, is located in a remote, mountainous area and lacks basic amenities such as electricity, telephone, public transportation, and water supply infrastructure. The new system will have a marked positive impact on the village’s health and economy.

"Engineers Without Borders not only provides a real public service for people in need, but gives students valuable experiences they don’t get in the classroom. They do all the planning, design, assessment, and implementation," says Beth Wittig, assistant professor of civil engineering and advisor to the CCNY chapter. "Through projects like this, students obtain hands-on experience, learn rules of thumb that practicing professional engineers use, network with professional engineers, and develop practical skills such as proposal writing, project management, and leadership."

Nueva Suiza’s existing water supply comes from a spring-fed pool contained by a natural dam made of rocks and clay. Community members must walk 1 kilometer to the dam to collect water and then carry it back to their homes. For many, the trek is too arduous and they have resorted to drawing water much closer to their homes from a small stream that has formed from the dam’s spillover. However, this rivulet has become contaminated and the water causes many residents to become sick.

The water system project consists of a reinforced, enclosed dam at the spring, a new tank in the center of the village where people will be able to draw water from several spigots, and a 1/2-mile pipeline connecting the dam to the tank. The 1-1/2-inch-diameter PVC pipeline will be buried when possible to protect it from foot traffic and animals, and anchored in place in locations with steep slopes using geotextile and rebar.

In addition to building the system, the students, most of whom are bilingual, will educate the community on public health issues such as solid waste management and ventilation.

The CCNY EWB chapter was awarded the Nueva Suiza project through a competitive bidding process shortly after it was established in October 2005. "They were chosen over some of the best engineering schools in the country because their proposal demonstrated understanding of the technical and cultural issues related to the project, ability to achieve the project, and dedication to implementing sustainable designs," says Wittig.

To fund the project, the students raised $33,000. Contributors included The Grove School of Engineering, Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, CCNY Alumni Association, CCNY Engineering Alumni Association, CCNY Auxiliary Enterprise Corp., Turner Construction, and private donors.

In April, three students, Wittig, and Cliff Gold, a CCNY alumnus and professional advisor to the chapter, traveled to Nueva Suiza for an assessment trip. The team interviewed community members in Spanish about health issues and water usage, evaluated nearby springs as potential water sources, and built simple dams with local residents. In addition, they collected water samples to measure pH, hardness, and chemical composition.

The design work was conducted during the spring, summer, and fall, with much of it accomplished by students at weekly chapter meetings. The design not only needed to be well engineered, but also acceptable to the community. "We needed to find a middle ground between the optimal engineering solution and what they wanted," says Yurintzy Estrada, a civil engineering major who is the student project manager.

Besides improving public health, the new system will be a boon to the local economy. Women and children in Nueva Suiza will no longer have to make the long, arduous trek to the spring to draw water and can put their time toward more productive uses. In addition, there will be more water available to support agriculture, which is the community’s economic lifeline.
Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst and The City College of New York