Designing solutions to meet basic needs

October 2004 » Feature Articles
Engineers have countless opportunities to save lives and to improve living conditions for millions throughout the world. Today, approximately 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water.
Tamar Losleben

Students re-engineer university education by serving poor communities.

Engineers have countless opportunities to save lives and to improve living conditions for millions throughout the world. Today, according to the United Nations Development Program, approximately 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and more than a quarter of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty. In El Salvador, girls skip school to hike to water pumps and return home balancing heavy water jugs.

Wasakuma women in western Tanzania dig in the sand of dry riverbeds to collect what little water they can find. Dehydrated Malian mothers cannot nurse their babies. These impoverished communities are in critical need of engineers to design solutions to meet their basic needs.

Last year, driven by a desire to learn, to help the less fortunate, and to apply their engineering skills, students at Rice University in Houston joined students from more than 60 other universities around the world who have founded chapters of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). EWB strives to bridge the gap between communities in need of basic amenities—such as clean water and working wastewater and sanitation systems—and individuals capable of implementing practical, appropriate solutions. So far, more than 50 projects are underway.

To Alex Gordon, president of the Rice University chapter of EWB, "Engineers Without Borders is a group of students who are thoroughly excited about making a difference in the world, and about making the most of incredible opportunities."

After only a year, more than 60 students, faculty, and professionals have joined Rice University EWB and teamed up with communities in Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mali. Deepa Pachang, a sophomore at Rice majoring in civil and environmental engineering, dedicates time to EWB because she "gains hands-on practical skills and learns a different aspect of engineering not taught in the classroom, all while making an impact on developing communities."

In Rice University ’s EWB chapter, responsibility is shared between an advisory board and project teams. The advisory board, comprised solely of students, oversees the strategic direction, funding, publicity, university support, and external support for the chapter. Each project team partners with a community, listens to its needs, identifies a feasible project, and submits a project application to the EWB-USA national headquarters. Following approval, the team finalizes a design, implements the solutions, and trains the community to maintain the system. Students conduct all fundraising, finding grants and willing donors.

Implementing a project requires many hours of planning. "When you’re doing something in the classroom, it all works. All the numbers fit together perfectly," said Abigail Watrous, a Rice University alumnus who worked on a rainwater catchment basin in Mali. "But when you’re in the middle of Africa, and you don’t have the right supplies, it teaches you to become more flexible. It’s a good problem-solving skill to have."

The constructed catchment basin harvests and stores rainwater. With the introduction of drip irrigation, the stored water could boost food production in a West African area heavily hit by drought, desertification, and food shortages.

The Mali Team now is preparing for phase two of the project—installation of a water pump to increase storage capacity using underground cisterns.

Each project has its own objectives, challenges, and timeline. In the Coahuila Desert of Northern Mexico, families in the town of Piedritas had no choice but to drink contaminated water, and, as a result, were chronically ill. In May 2004, Rice EWB installed the first phase of a water filtration and distribution system. The team will return in December to finish the second phase.

A Rice EWB team also will travel to El Cedro, a community in the hilly coffee plantations of El Salvador, whose local economy was devastated by the decline of world coffee prices.

A river bisects the community. During the rainy season, the river often rises to dangerously high levels and prohibits children from attending school and their nutrition program. And the flooding keeps parents from working. Additionally, there have been numerous drownings. A plan is underway to construct a pedestrian bridge over the river.

No matter the project, all EWB teams strive to create sustainable, culturally appropriate, low-tech systems with high impact. Because of Engineers Without Borders’ success, many universities have adapted their engineering programs to meet the growing demand for hands-on, humanitarian fieldwork. This fall, for example, Rice University offered a course titled, "Sustainable Development in Developing Countries," aimed at exploring the appropriate use of sustainable technology.

"The main purpose for the course is as a first step to integrate EWB into the academic curriculum of the [civil and environmental engineering] department," said Matt Fraser, Ph.D., associate professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering and faculty advisor for Rice EWB. "This approach to solving problems is a good way to motivate students to study engineering."

One already can see the benefits of cultivating a new generation of service-minded engineers. Engineers Without Borders offers opportunities to work with other cultures and levels of technical development. Around the world, civil engineering students have new and challenging, out-of-the classroom educational and humanitarian experiences. Students are building strong team and leadership skills that transcend cultural barriers. Many return saying they are most happy when working with communities in the developing world because they see how people’s lives change almost instantly.

Tamar Losleben recently graduated from Rice University with a degree in Environmental Science and Engineering and Studio Art. She looks forward to working with humanitarian aid organizations and engineering firms abroad on water supply and purification solutions. She can be reached at tamarlos@alumni.rice.edu.


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