UMass Students Head to Kenya to Assess Village’s Water Supply as Engineers Without Borders

AMHERST, Mass. – A five-person team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders is traveling to western Kenya today to kick off a project that will provide a reliable, healthy water supply for a village of 1,000 subsistence farmers.

The project will provide a source of potable water for the community of Namawanga in the western province of Kenya. This community currently relies on water located more than two miles from the village and villagers must fetch their water on foot from a stream that’s often contaminated with animal and human waste and runs dry during part of the year.

The group of engineering and non-engineering students, both graduate and undergraduate, is part of Engineers Without Borders-UMass (EWB-UMass), a group whose mission is to help disadvantaged communities improve their quality of life by developing environmentally friendly and economically sustainable engineering projects.

“EWB-UMass believes that engineers are a big part of the solution to social inequalities,” says Bree Carlson, the president of the campus chapter and a graduate student studying environmental engineering.

The project will create a reliable water source near Namawanga, reducing the villagers’ chances of contracting waterborne diseases, and allowing residents more time to look for food, participate in income-generating activities and attend school.

“It’s powerful to think that our student chapter will help provide clean drinking water to a village in Kenya, a country currently experiencing its worst drought in 20 years,” says senior mechanical engineering student Chris Arsenault.

The March assessment trip will determine a plan for giving Namawanga a self-sufficient water supply that is both uncontaminated and sustainable. Currently, the EWB-UMass team is looking into a variety of solutions, including drilling a well, rainwater catchments systems, and conventional water treatment. The assessment trip will also include extensive testing for major contaminants such as bacteria, arsenic, fluoride and nitrates.

The implementation follow-up trip will take place in early 2007, staffed by as many as 10 members of EWB-UMass. The goal of this trip will be to put into effect a well-designed engineering plan, created from the findings of the first trip.

“Water is one of humanity’s most basic needs,” says senior civil engineering student Tameron Josbeck. “This project represents my belief that everyone in the world has an inherent right to clean water.”

EWB-USA sends engineering teams to communities in developing countries to improve their quality of life while also encouraging internationally responsible engineers and engineering students. Local chapters such as EWB-UMass apply for, and are assigned projects from the national office in Colorado based on the soundness of their proposals and the qualifications of the personnel involved. Fund-raising efforts by EWB-UMass will finance the Kenyan project. Several project participants have been taking Swahili courses before leaving for Kenya.

“Even though I am not an engineering student,” says Seth Mansur, a junior Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration major, “over spring break I’ll get to use the Swahili I’m learning and actually get to apply my energy and knowledge to help people. Without EWB, I’d be just another face in the crowd.”

“We have the ability to affect people on a scale that is much larger than ourselves,” adds sophomore EWB-UMass member Julie Gagen. “It’s humbling.”