UMass Amherst’s Engineers Without Borders Work with Kenyan Village to Improve Water Supply

September 3, 2008

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AMHERST, Mass. – Members of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) student chapter at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently returned from a three-week trip to Kenya, where they worked to improve drinking water for a rural farming village.

It was the third visit of the group as part of its long-term Kenya Water Program, which is aimed at providing a self-sufficient water supply for several thousand people in the rural farming village of the Namawanga area in western Kenya.

Namawanga, a community that raises sugarcane, sweet potatoes and corn, relies on water sometimes located more than two miles away. Villagers must fetch their water on foot from sources often contaminated with animal and human waste or running dry during part of the year. Each household spends up to five hours per day gathering water.

The EWB project will impact Namawanga by creating reliable water sources that serve more than 3,000 people in the surrounding countryside and reduce their chances of contracting waterborne diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and cholera. The improved water sources will also allow the residents more time to raise food, participate in income-generating activities and attend school. The goal is to give Namawanga a water supply that is uncontaminated and sustainable by local technicians.

“The first thing we did on this trip was assess all the springboxes,” says EWB Kenya Program team leader Christina Stauber, a graduate student in environmental engineering.

A springbox is a structure made of a concrete retaining wall with steel piping that collects and stores water from a natural spring. Ideally, each springbox should function to protect the spring water from contamination by human and animal waste and provide a point of collection. But most of the springboxes in Namawanga are not doing their job effectively and the EWB has been improving them, chiefly by building fencing around the boxes to keep out animals.

“There were about 15 springboxes and natural springs that we had to visit and assess,” said Stauber. “Then, once we discussed the issues with the village, we got to work. We built fences around four springboxes this year. We fenced in four springboxes during our last trip to Kenya, and the villagers did another two. This trip we also built a new springbox from scratch on a natural spring that doesn’t dry out. That means constructing the concrete water storage area to hold and discharge water from the spring.”

The EWB team also did water quality and flow measurements of water sources and checked the status of previously installed fencing. One fence had obviously been invaded by a cow and some posts had rotted in the 18 months since they were emplaced, so EWB worked with villagers to install steel fence posts set in concrete to keep out grazing animals.

The UMass Amherst EWB chapter has been raising the $20,000 required to drill a permanent deep borehole on the grounds of a technical school in Namawanga, where the surrounding community will have a clean, year-round water source. By contrast, it takes only about $100 to build a new springbox, but the water availability is less reliable than a well and the water more likely to be contaminated.

“EWB is giving me a good glimpse of what my future could be like,” said Stauber. “I’ve had the idea in mind all along that I could be an engineer doing international development, but this trip made that idea much more concrete. In Kenya, I got a good sense about what the need actually is in developing countries and what I personally can do about it. It was a huge learning experience.”

Accompanying Stauber were graduate student Amanda Keyes, undergraduates Patrick Border and Patrick Westropp, recent graduates Thomas Chase and Christopher Arsenault, John Tobiason, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and professional mentor David Bakuli. Bakuli earned his doctorate in industrial engineering from UMass Amherst in 1993 and now teaches at Westfield State College. He is also from western Kenya, so he knows the culture and speaks Swahili and the local language.

The UMass Amherst EWB chapter includes engineering and non-engineering students whose mission is to help disadvantaged communities improve their quality of life by developing environmentally friendly and economically sustainable projects.

“For me it’s the kind of project I’ve wanted to get involved with for years,” said Tobiason. “I know I have a lot of knowledge that’s transferrable to the field. I’m very practical. My father was a carpenter who could build things. I inherited that sort of hands-on skill. To go to a place where I can just jump in and put my knowledge to work, showing people how simple it is to improve their water resources, that’s all very satisfying. It’s fulfilling to a different part of me than the guy who’s been teaching and conducting technical research for 20 years.”

Tobiason and Stauber also lectured to some 1,100 secondary and primary school students on water treatment and sanitation issues and encouraged students at a local university to get involved in the work at Namawanga.

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