Engineers Without Borders
For the last 10 years, University of Massachusetts Amherst engineering students and faculty have worked to bring potable and yearlong water supplies to two villages in Kenya and one in Ghana. Their work, part of the UMass Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders, may be the proverbial drop in the bucket of the water-scarce continent, but to the villagers, clean and sustainable water has dramatically improved their lives. Children are no longer burdened with trekking more than a mile for water and attend school in greater numbers. Health clinics shuttered due to inadequate water supplies now operate year-round. With reliable access to water, farmers can now cultivate a mango hybrid that brings more profits than other types of the fruit.
“The biggest motivator for us is helping people,” says Akhileshwar Borra ’18, president of the chapter. Michaela Savran ’17, vice president until her graduation in May, says, “You get to apply what you are learning, and then you get to see the results. It is definitely a great learning experience.” Students enhance their learning with exposure to surveys, engineering design and construction, communicating through language barriers, and working in an international environment.
In 2006, students and faculty made their first trip to Namawanga, a rural community in western Kenya. Since then, the students have worked in Saviefe-Deme, a small village in southeast Ghana, and last year began work in Nguluni, Kenya, another rural community southeast of the country’s capital, Nairobi.
“We have provided water where there was none,” notes John Tobiason, an engineering faculty member and founding member of the chapter. The United Nations estimates 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to clean and reliable water, which can result in high rates of disease and exacerbate poverty. Over the decade of working in Africa, the students have overseen the drilling of wells, the installation of water pumps and a rain catchment system, and educated villagers on how to avoid contaminating the water. The students receive no academic credit and must raise funds for travel expenses and equipment. Other engineering faculty who work with students on Engineers Without Borders projects are Emily Kumpel and Matthew Lackner, as well as Cheryl Brooks, assistant dean for experiential learning and corporate relations.
Their most recent achievement was supplying clean water in January to 1,000 students and 5,000 community members in water-scarce Nguluni. “It was a big deal and still is a big deal,” says Joseph Gitau Gikonyo ’15G, a Kenyan native and engineering doctoral student. “They are happy to have clean, safe water that is affordable.” He says women, who bear the responsibility to search for water, have more time to devote to farming and improving standards of living, while children, who are also often responsible for collecting water, can spend more time in school.
The UMass Amherst students helped install a pump to a well in Nguluni, drilled by the Kenyan government, and installed pipes to two schools and a central area of the village. The distribution system is simple—when leaks or other problems arise, villagers can make the repairs.
The villagers have been richly rewarded with their UMass partnership, with students also earning high dividends from the work. “The biggest lesson the UMass students will ever get is learning how to solve problems in a developing country,” says Gikonyo.