Feature Stories

Blueprint Brigade

Students engineer clean water projects and good will in Kenya
  • Kenyan child holds water pump handle while other children and adults look on.

"Engineers Without Borders stands firmly on the belief of building sustainable projects."

- Michaela Savran, Chemical Engineering

Time Magazine calls it the “Blueprint Brigade.” The International Engineers Without Borders (EWB) organization, headquartered in Colorado, now runs over 350 water, renewable energy, sanitation, and other engineering projects in more than 45 developing countries. One of those life-saving projects is the decade-old Kenya Project operated by the UMass Amherst EWB Chapter.

EWB is really less about blueprints, and more about people. In effect, it’s a Peace Corps for Engineers.

This “Peace Corps Effect” is not lost on our EWB participants. During her first trip to Kenya in 2015, Michaela Savran, a junior Chemical Engineering Major from Framingham, MA, realized the permanent impact EWB was having on 3,000 residents in the rural village of Namawanga by providing them with safe drinking water. But there was also a very personal effect.

“One thing that will stand out forever was the first trip I made in 2015 to Kenya and the Namawanga community,” recalls Savran. “There was this little boy who was about two years old, and I saw him every day as we were doing work at the primary school. And we used to do this little thing where he would come over and we would keep pointing at each other and laughing.”

Now fast-forward a year, when Savran returned to this school in January of 2016. As Savran remembers, “And that same little boy was standing behind his sister, and he jumped out and started pointing at me, and I did it back, and he got the biggest smile on his face because I remembered him. And I thought, wow! He’s going to remember this for the rest of his life, when we came to his community and helped them get water.”

The cultural interaction between young American engineering students and rural Kenyan subsistence farmers absolutely goes both ways, helping everybody concerned.

“My main impression of Kenya was definitely how happy the people were compared to us here, even though most Kenyans have much less than we do,” says junior Mechanical Engineering Major Sandy Guenther from Londonderry, NH. “The most memorable experience for me was our reception. It was awesome and extravagant. First they sang various songs to us. They fed us. They were so welcoming. I was amazed by how excited they were to see us. Everything was planned out. There was a program. They had all these chairs set out for us. Different leaders of the community spoke. They had a welcome song and they waved tree branches.”

Make no mistake about it, the engineering is vital too. How important is clean water in rural Kenya? Namawanga relies on inefficient and often contaminated water sources scattered throughout the 12.5-square-mile area, and residents, usually the women and children, often travel up to two miles each way to collect water every day.   

“Getting clean water is the central struggle of their life, and we’re helping them get it,” says Savran. “Also EWB stands firmly on the belief of building sustainable projects. So it’s not that we’re just going in and drilling a well and leaving it there so the people can fend for themselves. We stay in a community at least for five years, install the water project, go back year after year to fix what needs to be fixed, help them figure out how they can fix it if they need to, and we train people in the community to maintain the technology for themselves.”

There are about 46 million people living in Kenya, of which about 17 million (43 percent) do not have access to clean water.  One consequence is that diarrhea is second to pneumonia in deaths in children under five years of age. Water, sanitation, and hygiene related illnesses and conditions are the number one cause of hospitalization in children under age five. Some 70 percent of East African hospital visits are due to contaminated water.

Hospitalization and death are caused by water-based diseases such malaria and intestinal worm diseases (schistosomiasis), water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, diarrhea, and dysentery, or water-washed diseases such as eye infections and skin diseases.

These diseases and the contaminated water that cause them are what motivated the UMass EWB chapter to initiate its Kenya Project in 2006, and student teams have been traveling there at least once a year ever since.

Attracted by this project and its prospects, both Savran and Guenther joined the campus EWB chapter from day one at UMass. “I was attracted to EWB because I would have the opportunity to help out people who really need water,” says Guenther, “and also because I could get some hands-on engineering experience. I think EWB is important because we help people getting the water they need for basic survival.”

For Savran, the campus EWB chapter was a prerequisite for attending UMass. “It was the deciding factor why I came here. It’s been a central part of my whole education.”

Initially, beginning in 2006, the UMass EWB built spring boxes in Namawanga. “Basically you build a concrete slab up against the flow of a spring and provide a tap,” explains Savran. “It’s clean water if maintained properly and fenced off from animals that can contaminate the water. But the fencing wasn’t maintained. So then we moved on to rainwater catchment systems.”

Catchment systems are also called “rain harvesting.” These simple systems connect rooftop gutters to central water tanks capable of holding thousands of liters of water. In recent years, however, UMass EWB has been concentrating on a more reliable, clean, but expensive form of water. Drilling boreholes.

Speaking of those boreholes, each EWB chapter must raise all the funding to support its engineering projects in developing countries. During its most recent trip to Kenya in January of 2016, the UMass EWB team identified the urgent need for a well in the community of Nguluni, some two hours east of Nairobi. Currently, there is a rainwater catchment system at the local primary school, however it does not collect nearly enough for the community, made up mainly of hard-working subsistence farmers. A hydrogeologist has identified a promising borehole location in Nguluni, so now EWB’s efforts focus on fundraising for the new well to provide water to over 800 students and the 5000-member community.

Consequently, UMass EWB must raise $20,000 needed to drill a deep well at Nguluni. It’s an incredibly valuable project for a remarkably cost-effective price. In a world full of strife, hatred, and warfare, this EWB project not only represents a brilliant design for good will among all people, but also a prototype for how engineers can make Planet Earth into a better place for everyone.

As Guenther neatly sums up what might be the key experience of her UMass education, “The most important thing I learned in Africa was, on an emotional and spiritual level, being happy with what you have. And then, from an engineering perspective, getting the hands-on experience in the field.”

If you have any questions about UMass EWB or would like to participate in the Kenya fundraising campaign, please email: Cheryl Brooks at cbrooks@engin.umass.edu. Also check out Engineers Without Borders, University of Massachusetts Amherst, at http://blogs.umass.edu/ewbumass/.

College of Engineering