Helping Hands for Rural Communities in Need

Volunteering for Engineers Without Borders, undergrads work to improve water access in Malawi and Nicaragua

A group of Tufts undergraduates aren’t waiting until graduation to put their skills to use solving real-world problems.

As part of the Tufts chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a nationwide program that connects engineering students with projects in underserved communities, a group of undergraduates is working to improve water access in Solomoni, Malawi, and Silvio Mayorga, Nicaragua.

“It feels great to be able to take on these projects,” said Max Harrington, a sophomore studying biomedical engineering and a project leader on the Malawi project.

Running Water for School Children

At the primary and secondary schools in Solomoni, Malawi, students and teachers have to leave school to access an outside water pump. Since lots of activities, like cleaning breakfast dishes, hydrating, and washing hands, require water, the location of the pump is inconvenient, and retrieving water interrupts the school day.

“A lot of people have to walk a long time to get water. The goal is to reduce the time it takes, so they can stay in school longer,” said Harrington.

As a solution to the water access problem, the Tufts EWB team partnered with Joshua Orphan and Community Care, a nonprofit focused on helping vulnerable children and their communities in Malawi, to design a system of pipes and faucets to provide running water within the school.

The network of pipes will bring running water to the bathrooms, kitchens, and science labs, meaning the school’s 1,500 students won’t have to stop their lessons just to get water, said Natasha Wan, a sophomore studying biomedical engineering and the other project leader for the Malawi group. The project will also provide water to the living quarters of about 20 teachers who live on school grounds.

In addition to the pipe system, the team plans to replace the hand pump with a solar-powered pump, which will pump groundwater into a new, elevated water tank. The elevation of the water tank will provide the water pressure needed for water to flow through the pipes and into the school.

A water pump in an open field in Solomoni, Malawi

A water pump in Solomoni, Malawi. With help from Tufts Engineering Without Borders students, this water pump with be replaced by a solar-powered one. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Depalma and Emma Inhorn

“Wherever students are, they can just turn the faucet and water will come right out,” said Harrington.

The solar pump, tank, and system of pipes have not been built yet. While Tufts EWB is responsible for the design, they are working with a local contractor selected by the national EWB program to construct the new system. They hope to start construction around June, said Harrington and Wan.

While Tufts students won’t be responsible for construction, the group is planning to visit the school this coming August, to meet the community members and help the contractors with the building process. Harrington and Wan said the whole construction phase will probably take three to four months.

A Leaky Water Tower

About an hour’s drive from Nicaragua’s capital sits the town of Silvio Mayorga, home to about 200 people. Residents there used to rely on a 6,000-liter water tower for their daily water usage, but the water tower was badly corroded, leaked, and sagged so much that it could never be more than two-thirds full. To avoid drinking from it, some residents would gather water from nearby lakes and streams, or trek to other nearby communities for water.

Both the water from the corroding tank and from nearby lakes and streams posed health risks to the community, said Erik Stedman, a junior studying environmental engineering and the project leader for the Tufts EWB Nicaragua team.

In 2016, Tufts EWB partnered with a local NGO, the Quelantaro Wildlife Reserve, to find a solution. They eventually constructed a new steel water tower in 2021. The steel tower can hold 15,000 liters of water. After the tower was completed, an engineer from the Nicaragua EWB office inspected it, and provided Tufts students with a list of recommendations to implement to make sure the tower stays functional and safe over the long term.

The project was supported by a donation from Elizabeth “Betty” Berger, J69, through the Berger Charitable Foundation in 2020. The foundation later created an endowment for the Tufts EWB chapter with a $100,000 gift supporting EWB’s efforts in areas like Silvio Mayorga and Malawi. The gift was made in honor of the late Fred Berger, A69, who was a strong supporter of EWB’s work and of Tufts.   

Currently, Tufts EWB students are implementing those recommendations, which include replacing pipes that show signs of damage and adding extra protection to the valves in the pipe system.

The next step is to ensure that the tower remains in good working condition. Stedman said the Tufts students are carrying out this phase remotely, but might plan travel to Silvio Mayorga in the future.

Complications due to the pandemic have made travel to Nicaragua and Malawi difficult, said EWB faculty advisor Chris Swan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“The students have been resourceful enough to support these communities through virtual communication and the hiring of local/regional workers indigenous to the region to co-design and then install needed solutions,” he said. “This helps the team to meet its mission of supporting global communities.”

Learning to Work Together

Beyond helping to improve water access, building a community of young engineers has been highly rewarding for students involved, said Wan. “It’s like EWB is a family,” she said.

It’s also been challenging for club leaders, since so many people—sometimes, up to 40 students at once—want to be involved in the projects. “It’s very difficult to make sure that every member of the club feels like their work is valuable and impactful, and that they come to every meeting accomplishing something,” said Harrington.

To solve this, he said, the club leaders break every engineering challenge into smaller components, which students can work on in groups of five or six. “That way, everyone feels like they’re still doing engineering,” he said.

Communication is also a challenge, said Wan. “Being on this big team that’s working to make this project come together is hard,” she said. “We’ve had to learn ways to collaborate with experts from around the world, with different time zones, and have had to overcome some tricky communication due to cultural and language barriers.”

Wan has enjoyed getting to know the team players, especially their NGO partners and their cultural mentor: environmental engineer Naomi Slagowski, EG08, who lived in Malawi during her time in the Peace Corps in 1999-2001.

Stedman also said he’s learned a lot about real-world engineering, project management, and leadership from his EWB experience. “It’s been really cool to watch my education catch up to the things that I’ve been exposed to in Engineers Without Borders,” he said.

“It is great to see students take both a humanitarian view to engineering and grow as leaders in implementing solutions on the global scene,” said Swan.

To raise money for the implementation of both projects, EWB is planning a fun run and walking event in April, open to the public. The run/walk will be six kilometers, since that’s the average distance that women and children walk to get water in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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