The 43 members of Clarkson's student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), an international nonprofit humanitarian organization, joined forces with fellow students enrolled in a civil engineering course to find solutions for unclean drinking water in an Ecuadorian village.
In keeping with EWB's mission to assist developing communities worldwide to improve their quality of life through interactive partnerships, the Clarkson students decided to focus their efforts on La Margarita, a village of 320 residents in need of several everyday necessities including clean drinking water. Residents here rely on the adjacent Los Tintos River for most of their drinking water, but the river is also a dumping site for waste and sewage.
Their situation is not unique.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that at any given time, nearly half the population of the developing world suffers from waterborne disease associated with inadequate water and sanitation services.
Graduate student Andres Orlando, a native of Ecuador, first found the project while he was home on vacation. "We had already chosen Ecuador, but we had not been able to find the right town for our pilot project. So, I asked around to my family members and friends and along the way someone suggested La Margarita," he says.
Led by Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering Shane Rogers, four EWB students spent a week in Ecuador last August making assessments of the village and conducting water quality surveys.
"We collected samples in the river water, ground water and irrigation canals - every source the people drink water from - as well as the water stored for drinking in their homes," says Gabrielle String '11. "We tested these sources for pesticides, herbicides, bacteria and other pollutants. We also conducted public health, land and structural surveys of all 75 homes in the community."
Common practices in the village include the use of bedpans for sanitary wastes that are emptied into the Los Tintos River either directly or through the windows of their small homes. Some families have access to rudimentary, non-functional septic systems that drain to the river. Without running water, toilets at the elementary school in the village cannot be flushed and are allowed to slowly seep into the ground under the school building.
"Families purchase bottled drinking water for children under three, but otherwise use water from the same locations in the Los Tintos River that they discharge their waste for drinking purposes," says String. "When times are tight, families must use river water for young children. This often results in gastrointestinal illness; which happened to one 14-month-old child during our assessment trip."
The project also involved undergraduate engineers in the classroom. Students in Professor Susan Powers' Civil Engineering 212 course spent time researching easy-to-use solutions, such as filtration systems, to provide rapid access to clean drinking water in each home. Teams presented their solutions to the EWB design team during the fall semester and Orlando brought the best designs to La Margarita over winter break.
"The townspeople are leaning towards adopting a clay pot filtration system that we developed," says Orlando. "We are in the process of getting a better estimate on a price for them."
The cost of the new water filtration system will be partially aided by a $5,000 travel grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund through EWB-USA, which was recently received by the group.
Once the decision is finalized, Clarkson's EWB will construct the prototype and head back to Ecuador to set it up and educate the townspeople on how it works. The group hopes to use the final design in other towns and eventually do more humanitarian work in La Margarita focusing on wastewater issues.
"A lot of groups just go in and give a town money," says Orlando. "That doesn't really work. We wanted to give them something useful, something that will last."
For String, meeting with the villagers and working directly with them has been important for the success of the project. "The personal connection makes a big difference," she says. "It feels like so much more than just another project. I feel dedicated to it because I've met the people and I understand their needs. I've been there. I've seen it."