By Alana Soehartono and Marissa Jablonski
When water flows out of the faucet, it travels through miles of pipeline before providing households with potable water. This is a privilege that constituents of developed countries often take for granted. For one out of every six people in the world, the task of procuring water involves trekking across miles of difficult terrain to a rudimentary water pump shared by entire communities. Despite the United Nations General Assembly declaring access to clean water a basic human right, there still remains an urgent and desperate need for clean water in many communities.
Engineers Without Borders at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (EWB@UWM) recognizes this urgency and strives to provide these communities with more accessible and efficient means of water procurement. Engineering assistance provides entire communities with the capacity to solve multiple problems through a single solution, soliciting the participation and expertise of local parties. The project selection process begins by first determining a community’s most pressing needs with its dedicated village leaders, followed by identifying solutions that will best resolve those needs, while considering consequential factors such as time, finances and environmental sustainability. With thorough water analyses, survey data and community health assessments, EWB@UWM is then able to assess and accumulate the appropriate technology necessary to the project. Community leaders further increase their involvement in the project by donating local resources to bolster the project’s sustainability.
Time constraints associated with a student-run group create limitations for villages seeking outside help to accomplish projects. Community visits and check-ups traditionally occur annually, while Agua Para la Salud (APS), a local NGO, provides bimonthly visits to ensure correct and uninterrupted operation of all systems. Day-to-day regulation and systems maintenance is largely dependent on trained community members, providing a sense of autonomy that enables villages to take ownership of the project, gain independence and limit heavy reliance on outside sources. Villagers band together as a community to assist in a variety of tasks to complete the project, lending their time and efforts for trenching, acting as guides for surveyors, assisting in construction and preparing meals for all individuals involved. In this way, sustainable design and appropriate technology is maximized to afford communities greater independence.
The land of the trees
The Republic of Guatemala is a land of arresting beauty, bestowed with rich natural resources, which include reserves of petroleum, timber, nickel and gold, and an economy reliant on those resources. Home to pioneering Mayan civilizations and a linguistic diversity boasting over 23 Mayan dialects, Guatemala’s culture and early history are as equally complex as its more contemporary history. As the country emerges from a 36-year civil war that plagued its rural populations, the need for infrastructure development is disproportionate. Development initiatives by the government are funneled to the modernization of urban city centers, leaving rural areas bereft of aid. Since its inception in 2007, EWB@UWM has implemented three projects in these rural countryside regions, in an effort to provide communities with access to clean water. Students continue to work alongside professional mentors and team with APS to determine the project selection and design process.
Appropriate technology was applied, taking advantage of the country’s hilly terrains, based on extensive water testing. This testing determined water quality, flow and site topography. The data was instrumental in understanding water temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, pH, total chlorine, free chlorine, total hardness, total alkalinity, number of people using the water source, latitudinal and longitudinal location, and a means of quantifying the effectiveness of the system. In June 2008, EWB@ UWM implemented a water collection and conveyance system in the village of Quejchip, situated in the northwest highlands of the Quiche region. The design encompassed a concrete spring box to capture the water at its source and protect it from runoff, 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) of buried PVC pipe, and a centralized distribution tank. The distribution system was comprised of the distribution tank and conveyance lines reaching homes. Student engineers performed hydraulic calculations and verified a sufficient elevation pressure head to transport water from its source to 27 different tap locations supporting 49 families throughout the village. The network was divided into seven different branches Later test results indicated the presence of fecal coliforms in the community spring, which showed a direct correlation between water quality and community health, as preliminary reports found villagers frequently falling sick. The findings challenged the team to determine a water treatment system and microscopic bacteria present (a foreign concept to the villagers). Working with APS, the team demonstrated contamination through color changes that indicated bacterial growth on petri dish samples. As a result, the village water council concluded further water purification was necessary and prompted the engineering team’s return in June 2009. The team identified two bacterial removal methods: slow sand filtration and chlorination. Upon further evaluation, chlorination was found to be a more ideal fit for the project.
Slow sand filtration provides an alternative to the chlorination method to improve removal of waterborne pathogens. This system has not been tested in this geographic region and will require a more advanced operation and maintenance plan. Extensive training must be provided to villagers in order to monitor and identify the appropriate time and methods for removing accumulating bio layers and sections of the sand layer. This training process requires a member of the organization experienced in slow sand filtration technology to remain in the village for a longer period of time—approximately six months to one year—for routine education on operation and maintenance. For an NGO with an agenda filled with numerous projects awaiting completion every year, staying for an extended period of time in one village is challenging, let alone a not-for-profit student organization.
Chlorination is slowly becoming the regionally accepted method of bacteria removal from drinking water. The villagers, unaccustomed to the taste of chlorine in their water, participate in discussions about dosages, allowing the team to implement a solution that ensures palatability for villagers without compromising water quality. Maintenance of such systems involves minimal cost, comprising chlorine tablets and labor. Villagers are trained on system maintenance procedures, including regular water quality assessments, eliminating the need for more intensive observation.
The engineering group recently implemented a gravity- fed distribution system in Quejchip’s neighboring village, La Libertad. Design of the system consisted of a distribution tank, chlorinator, and conveyance lines to 55 tap stands, to provide clean water to 330 people. This 2,641-gallon (10,000-liter) distribution and filtration system has been projected to remain operational at least through 2029.
The group’s current undertaking (the largest project attempted to date) is a distribution system to transport water to the villages of Vitostix and Vijolom III—over 5.5 miles (9,000 meters) of pipeline without any pumps. With five spring sources, the system design includes a distribution tank, junction boxes and pipelines to reach individual homes from the separate springs acquired by the villages. GPS surveying technology is used during the assessment trips to assist in determining the hydraulic gradeline and feasibility of the proposed route. The magnitude of the project requires separation into two phases, to be completed in January and June 2011. Water quality testing will be conducted in the future to determine the necessity of a water treatment system.
The total cost of projects per village, including material, logistical and travel costs, amounts to approximately $25,000 (USD). The installation of this fundamental infrastructure, in addition to improving the quality of life in these village communities, may also influence similar water distribution projects in neighboring villages. Preliminary health surveys indicate that rampant waterborne illnesses among villagers correspond to low school attendance. Installation of water distribution systems results in a decrease in illness among community members and an increase in school attendance. These improvements are attributed to the elimination of extensive travel to spring sources.
The completion of such community-based projects relies on personal and corporate donations, as well as fundraising efforts. Without the generous assistance of many organizations, including CannedWater4Kids, Briggs & Stratton, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Rotary International, such projects would not be possible. EWB@UWM continues to seek funding assistance and professional collaboration with local organizations to achieve our full potential of helping two villages per year. Engineers have been charged with improving standards of living through projects such as these, and EWB@UWM is fully committed to empower people and their communities by providing the basic tools necessary to develop a healthy, thriving society.
About the authors
Alana M. Soehartono, a student of electrical engineering at UWM, currently serves as the Co-Chair for Engineers Without Borders at UWM. She works as an undergraduate research assistant at the Engineering Mechanics and Composites Laboratory under Dr. Rani El-Hajjar, investigating non-destructive evaluation methods. She recently procured a Stipend for Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) grant from UWM to fund the project.
Marissa R. Jablonski is a Ph.D. student of civil/environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). She is focusing her dissertation on sustainable oxidation of textile wastewater. Jablonski currently serves as Program Coordinator of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded FORTE (Fostering Opportunities for Tomorrow’s Engineers) program. She has served as Co-Chair of UWM’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders since its inception in 2007 through 2009. Jablonski was a 2008 recipient of the NSF Graduate Fellowship Honorable Mention, the 2008 Wisconsin Water Association Scholarship, and the UWM Chancellor’s Graduate Student Awards, 2007-1010, and is a member of American Society of Engineering Education. She earned a BS Degree in natural resources and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and an MS Degree in civil/environmental engineering from UWM. Jablonski is currently working on her doctorate degree in civil/environmental engineering.
About the organization
UWM’s student chapter of EWB works in coordination with Engineers Without Borders-USA, a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life. This partnership involves the implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students. At UWM, students in Engineers Without Borders have the opportunity to participate in projects such as steel/concrete bridges, water filtration/supply systems, computer setup/training, solar power systems, and anything else students wish to propose. Civil engineers, computer scientists, electrical engineers, architects, mechanical engineers, industrial engineers, urban planners and materials engineers all have valuable resources to offer Engineers Without Borders and developing communities.