Well Thought Out

Students engineer a clean water supply for a Ugandan village, and stay involved with the community

In Shilongo, a rural village of about 800 people in eastern Uganda, getting a drink of water isn’t as simple as turning on a faucet. There’s one borehole that supplies clean water to the entire community, and until this past August, it had only a single outlet attached to a hand pump. That meant villagers wanting to fill jerry cans to take home had to wait in line for up to three hours—increasing the temptation to get water instead from contaminated springs nearby.

Now, thanks to some enterprising Tufts undergraduates, Shilongo has a water storage tank with four spigots that holds up to a full day’s supply of clean drinking water for all 800 villagers. Instead of pumping the water by hand, a pump powered by a stationary bicycle gets the work done faster—with a dash of fun for the kids who usually do the pedaling.

It’s all the handiwork of students involved with the Tufts chapter of Engineers Without Borders, who have gone to Uganda the past two summers to complete the water project.

“I was very impressed by how well organized and motivated the students were, and especially with their ingenuity,” says John McAllister, E03, an environmental engineer who served as the professional mentor for the student group and who has gone to Shilongo with them. “They are very selfless and driven.”

The project began several years ago, when Scott McArthur, E12, approached Chris Swan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, to propose a project for the Tufts chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Swan is one of three faculty advisors to the group, which works on sustainable engineering projects in developing countries. McArthur had visited the village of Shilongo, knew there was a need and thought the Tufts students could help.

Swan and the Tufts chapter agreed, and in May 2010, McArthur and five other Tufts students arrived in Uganda to do a formal assessment visit. They headed to Shilongo, a 40-minute motorbike ride from Mbale, a city of about 90,000 not far from the Kenyan border, and held a series of meetings with village leaders and residents to determine what was most needed.

Most villagers spoke Lugisu, the dominant language, and translation was sometimes a challenge. But it soon became clear that greater access to clean water was the biggest need. The students tested the water quality in the springs around the village and found E. coli bacteria, which can cause severe gastrointestinal infection. They also tested the borehole, which they found to be clean—it supplied good drinking water. Still, getting water every day was a cumbersome chore for most families.

Welcome Back

After the initial assessment trip, the Engineers Without Borders team wrote up their findings, and got to work. Starting in September 2010, they met weekly and recruited new members for the project. In the end, they decided the best solution was to build a water storage tank that could hold a day’s supply of water, with four spigots instead of one. They also came up with the idea to use a bike to power the pump.

“I thought that bicycle modification idea was the coolest thing ever,” says McAllister. “It’s a basic system, which is what you need so that it’s sustainable. But it’s absolutely perfect—and they came up with that all by themselves.”

The tank and pump plans were also vetted by Swan and by the national chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which has to sign off on any project done under its auspices.

Work continued through the school year, including building prototypes of all the devices. A crew of newer Engineers Without Borders students planned the next trip for the summer of 2011.

Among other things, they had to raise the money to make the trip. They wrote grant applications, and their efforts paid off: They received funding from Tufts’ Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and the Millennium Campus Network.

In August, five students, led by Erin Coonahan, E12, headed to Uganda. “There are beautiful rolling hills, with houses made of mud bricks spread out throughout the hills,” she says. “Most of the people completely live off the land.”

The villagers were happy to see them—and inquired about McArthur and the other students who had been there the year before. “Right away they were really, really friendly,” says Coonahan.

The team—made up of Coonahan; Cliff Bargar, E12; Erin Fleurant, A13; Greg Meyerhoff, E11; and Misaki Nozawa, E13—quickly got to work. They split their time between the engineering work to get the storage tank area ready for construction and doing community-health work to warn villagers to avoid contaminated water.

They also traveled to neighboring Mbale on boda-bodas, or motorcycle taxis, to buy parts, figuring they wanted to only use locally available materials in case repairs were needed later. “We would travel on this slow, muddy, potholed road. In the rain it was terrifying,” says Coonahan.

After the students scoped out the site and did the preliminary work for a week, McAllister arrived, and was cheerfully greeted by villagers. “The community made us feel like we were appreciated,” he says.

The students appreciated him, too. “It’s very important that we got a lot of input in the design and the construction process from a professional engineer,” says Coonahan.

Then the building began: laying a concrete foundation for the storage tank and getting the tank built. The villagers had made the mud bricks to construct the tank and took over that phase of the project amid soaking rainstorms that erupted with annoying frequency.

Engineering on the Fly

Things didn’t always go according to plan. Although the students had built prototypes of the tank and bicycle pump at Tufts, they hadn’t quite factored in the vigorous workout the local children would give the bicycle. They had the pump up and running on a Tuesday; by Thursday morning it was broken. “One of the parts got bent beyond repair,” Coonahan says. After a mad dash to Mbale, they found replacement parts, which luckily ended up working much better than the originals.

Then they discovered the villagers had concerns. They were worried that the overflow pipe—installed to guard against too much pressure building up in the storage tank—could be breached and contaminate the water in the tank. After consulting with the villagers, the team devised a solution: a wire mesh cover on the end of the overflow pipe.

“One of the things the students had to learn was that even with the best-laid plans, you’re going to come up with some changes in the field,” says McAllister. They rose to the challenge. “The kids really put in the time and effort to come up with solutions on the fly,” he adds. “It was very impressive.”

McAllister left after a week on site, and the students completed the final work on the storage tank. They also put on health workshops about the need to always use clean drinking water for the village children and did more water quality testing. At the end of three weeks, they had accomplished what they set out to do and headed back home.

The Engineers Without Borders group still meets weekly, and their connection with Shilongo is still strong. They keep in regular telephone contact with the village to check on the condition of the storage tank and water pump, and have raised enough money for a follow-up trip in January to assess how the system is working.

“The idea behind every Engineers Without Borders project is not for us to go and do something and then leave the community hanging, so to speak,” says Swan. “We want a long-term sustained relationship with that community.”

The students are already hoping to return to Shilongo next summer and will use the January trip to begin “gathering information and planning a solar- or wind-powered system to pump the water,” says Coonahan. “We’re really excited to be able to go back.”

For more on the Engineers Without Borders trip to Shilongo, read the students’ travel blog.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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