A student team of Engineers Without Borders recently returned from Kenya where they began implementing a plan to bring clean drinking water to more than 3,000 subsistence farmers. Working with villagers of Namawanga, their projects focused on water quality, assessing sites for future wells, grading topsoil and fencing out livestock.
A team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) 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 in order to improve the sanitation of water. Villagers usually get water from springboxes – concrete retaining walls built into hillsides to collect ground water.
“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 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 EWB team included Tobiason; six engineering students: 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, 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 EWB project in Kenya. “The most satisfying aspect of the trip for me was being able to teach the girls in the secondary school about ground water 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 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 of 2008, depending on the pace of donor support.
“The wells are the next step,” says Gagen. “We don’t know how many we’ll drill. That depends on the money we raise.”
Water Clean-up Project in Kenya
March 14, 2007