Engineers help clean water abroad

Work continues in Uganda, Guatemala and Honduras.

Summer break does not apply to engineers — at least the ones working with the University of Minnesota’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

This past summer, members of EWB-UMN traveled to Guatemala and Uganda to make clean water more accessible.

The group is part of the national organization Engineers Without Borders USA, which works to improve the quality of life around the world through engineering projects.

“It gives students an outlet to apply things in class to a real-world outlet and actually help people,” said EWB-UMN president Samantha Ehrenberg.

Each project designed by the group goes through an approval process by the parent organization, she said. After a project is authorized, students take between two and five assessment trips to a partner country to gather information and finalize plans. After putting its projects in motion, the group monitors the new systems to ensure they work as planned.

Most of the group’s efforts focus on making clean water more accessible to communities around the world.

“It’s a necessary resource just to live,” Ehrenberg said.


From rooftop to classroom


In summer 2011, two members of EWB-UMN ran a pathogen test on the water of the 300-family community of Bugonzi, Uganda. The water tested positive for E. coli, among other infectious agents.

“Before our project, the only source of water for the community and the school was this pond that was about a kilometer away, so the kids would have to leave school to go get this water for their families,” said bioproducts and biosystems engineering senior Stephanie Nappa, leader of the Uganda project.

She said that the group used its longstanding relationship with the Uganda Rural Fund to propose constructing a rainwater harvesting system in the community.

In May 2012, after the project was approved, Nappa and seven other students spent a month building a gutter system that collected water from multiple rooftops in two concrete tanks for storage. The gutter system gave the community more access to water and students more time to attend school, Nappa said.

Although the Bugonzi project went through a rigorous approval session, the students had trouble accurately gauging the new system’s effectiveness because it was installed during the dry season.

After the group returned to the United States, community members informed them that there was a leak in the drainage system, and the gutters were not collecting water to full capacity. The student group paid for community members to address this problem until it could make a return trip.

Ensuring that the partner community is involved with the work and upkeep of the project is a main goal, Nappa said.

“We don’t want to be seen as a group that just comes in and gives them something,” she said. “We want them to feel that it’s their responsibility, that it’s their project and that they’re the ones that will own and maintain it.”

She said that members plan to return to Uganda in January 2013 to assess the system and look for other project opportunities.


Preventing damage


In the agricultural village of Agua Caliente, Guatemala, the five dams and handful of ram pumps that service water to the fields were built by members of the community more than 20 years ago.

The degraded state of the dams left many people on the perimeter of the village without water. One brick outhouse was on the verge of collapse, said mechanical engineering senior Isaac Murphy, co-leader of the EWB Guatemala project.

“They built them themselves, but they’re very crude,” Murphy said.

A nearby exporting business called Apermac proposed a partnership with EWB-UMN to expand the village’s dams and water distribution system.

EWB-UMN members went on assessment trips in March and August 2012 to develop a proposal for building a new dam.

The group learned soon after arriving that many other organizations had gone through this community to collect data but had done nothing to change its conditions.

“We didn’t want to bolster that view,” Murphy said. “We wanted to change that.”

When the group implements the project in spring or summer 2013, it will work to get the community members directly involved. Informing children from the community’s schools about what they’re doing will be a large part of the process, he said.

“They’re going to know us; they’re going to see us helping them, and that’s going to give them a project to focus on in their community as well — something to look forward to and up to.”

Murphy said that his lack of civil engineering familiarity didn’t matter for working with the community’s schools.

“It doesn’t take much book knowledge,” he said. “It just takes your heart, really, to want to be there and want to help them.”


Looking ahead


EWB-UMN is planning another assessment of gravity-fed water systems used by communities in Honduras.

The group visited there in May 2011 to find alternative water-supply options.

Before being elected as vice president of EWB-UMN, civil environmental engineering and Spanish sophomore Spencer Borchardt translated documents for the Honduras project’s early assessments. He said he would especially like to see this project implemented.

“We’re hoping to really get our feet into the ground for next year,” he said.

Borchardt said that being able to share his education with the students of EWB’s partner communities will drive his involvement.

“Not everyone has the engineering expertise that we may have,” Borchardt said. “Using our expertise, we can give them the tools necessary to continue succeeding in their education.”