UMass Amherst Student Engineers Bring Safer Water Storage to Amazon Rain Forest Villagers

October 16, 2008

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AMHERST, Mass. – On a recent trip to the Amazon rain forest, three engineering students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), accompanied by two professional members, taught villagers how to build their own rot-proof, contaminant-free water storage units from cheap local materials.

The work helps to ensure a steady supply of clean water to about 280 families in Assis, a village on a government reserve for workers in the traditional rubber-tapping trade. Students Colin Murphy of Brewster, a senior in civil and environmental engineering, with sophomores John Sullivan of Blackstone and Daniel Bercht of Maynard, spent five days in the village in far western Brazil. Local engineer and attorney James Duda of Pelham, an active member of the local EWB chapter, worked with the team, as did Marina Pereira of Quincy, a Brazilian who earned a graduate degree in environmental engineering at UMass Amherst last spring.

There is plenty of water on the reserve, the EWB team learned, especially during the long rainy season, and many families catch it for daily use in “spring boxes” or above-ground wooden holding tanks. But water in open boxes is easily contaminated by dirt or animal waste, raising the risk of diarrhea and cholera. Also, above-ground wooden boxes rot quickly when exposed to air.

Over the past year, before traveling to Brazil, the university’s engineering students designed a new closed spring box and determined exactly how it could be installed in Assis. “The key to our spring box is it’s covered so contaminants can’t get in,” team leader Murphy explains. “There is a plastic covering, a layer of clay above that, and soil above that. A pipe sticks out the top and leads to an above-ground pump.”

The Amazon trip was not without challenges, according to Duda, of Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP, Springfield. “We had to overcome two unexpected obstacles when we got down there. First, due to a breakdown in communications, we thought the materials and tools we’d need were going to be there waiting. But when we arrived, none of it was there. So the next morning we had to round up everything. But it worked out fine.”

Another problem was the site’s unexpected soil composition. Instead of typical Amazon River sand, the team hit hard gray clay that did not drain well. “We solved that by bringing sand up from the river to line the box and help the percolation process,” says Duda. “When we left, the box was recharging about six fills per day. That’s more than we hoped for.”

On this year’s trip, the EWB team’s second to the area, they taught about 15 community members how to build the boxes. These leaders will in turn help friends and neighbors build their own. “During our first trip to the reserve last year, we talked a lot about germs that can get into open spring boxes, making the water supply unsafe,” says Duda. “So they’re very much in tune with that. They listed clean water as their most important need.”

The ongoing UMass Amherst EWB Amazon project’s next goal is to provide new pumps, according to Murphy, whose current senior independent study in engineering is to design one using cheap materials available in Brazil, such as PVC pipe and rubber. “We’ll take a model down there, test it in place, and teach them how to make more,” Murphy says.

UMass Amherst EWB chapter members are also starting design work on a better sanitation system with locally obtainable materials. To learn more about EWB-USA, a non-profit organization that seeks to develop globally aware and internationally responsible engineers, students and professionals, see www.ewb-usa.org/. To support the UMass Amherst EWB chapter, contact Michael Chernoff at 413/577-2477.

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