I’ll Drink to That!

December 11, 2013

Featured

Engineers Without Borders student chapter teams up with other engineering students to bring clean water to peers in rural Bolivia
 
From left, students, Sean McGuinness from Fairfield (Conn.) University, Deidre Beck from South Dakota State University (Brookings), and Katherine Pitz from Fairfield University, work together to survey the Unidad Academica Campesina lower campus for a new sand filter. Photo courtesy of Bruce W. Berdanier, Fairfield University.

From left, students, Sean McGuinness from Fairfield (Conn.) University, Deidre Beck from South Dakota State University (Brookings), and Katherine Pitz from Fairfield University, work together to survey the Unidad Academica Campesina lower campus for a new sand filter. Photo courtesy of Bruce W. Berdanier, Fairfield University.

Many universities try to woo prospective students with fancy new dormitories and gourmet dining options. But the Unidad Academica Campesina (UAC) — “United College for the Peasants” — in Carmen Pampa, Bolivia, is taking a more utilitarian approach.

This branch of the Catholic University of Bolivia now can entice prospective students with the prospect of clean drinking water. If all goes according to plan, it also will boast proper sanitation within 5 years.

The university will have college students from South Dakota and Connecticut to thank for it. This past summer, the Engineers Without Borders (EWB; Denver) student chapter at South Dakota State University (Brookings) teamed with students in Fairfield (Conn.) University’s School of Engineering on the venture after the chapter’s founder and professional mentor, Bruce Berdanier, took a new position as dean of Fairfield’s School of Engineering. Berdanier is now in the process of forming a new EWB chapter at Fairfield.

In 2009, Berdanier first made contact with UAC’s top administrator, who was completing his master’s degree at South Dakota State. “He was looking for help in addressing water-related illnesses that the school and community were dealing with,” Berdanier explained.

Founded in 1994 with about 50 students and no water treatment or sanitation, UAC is located in a rural, mountainous region of western Bolivia. The university has grown to serve about 700 students from 19 surrounding villages on its two campuses, which are located approximately 1 km (0.6 mi) in distance and 305 m (1000 ft) in elevation from each other.

The community initially piped in drinking water from mostly clean high mountain pools and waterfalls nearby, Berdanier explained. “As the student population grew, additional water sources were developed by tapping streams at lower elevations, resulting in a water supply that contained pesticides, soil, and organic matter,” he said.

Educating the community first

The group that helped provide clean water to the university in Bolivia stand with a local woman. Pictured are, front row from left, Melinda Berdanier; the San Pedro woman; and Emily Sumner, South Dakota State University; and back row from left, Bruce Berdanier; Sean McGuinness, Fairfield University; Jedidiah Reimnitz, South Dakota State University; Matt Auch, South Dakota State University; Deidre Beck, South Dakota State University; and Katherine Pitz, Fairfield University. Photo courtesy of Berdanier.

The group that helped provide clean water to the university in Bolivia stand with a local woman. Pictured are, front row from left, Melinda Berdanier; the San Pedro woman; and Emily Sumner, South Dakota State University; and back row from left, Bruce Berdanier; Sean McGuinness, Fairfield University; Jedidiah Reimnitz, South Dakota State University; Matt Auch, South Dakota State University; Deidre Beck, South Dakota State University; and Katherine Pitz, Fairfield University. Photo courtesy of Berdanier.

After a preliminary trip to the region in 2010, Berdanier returned 2 years later with some South Dakota State students to discuss plans to chlorinate the water. The response they received was not entirely positive.

“Our proposal scared some people,” Berdanier said. “The community had had a bad experience with an earlier chlorination system that they were unable to control. People suffered mouth burns.”

A top priority for the new system’s design, consequently, was to make it simple enough for the UAC’s students to operate and maintain. That included using locally sourced parts and building redundancy into the system so it could remain operational during repairs, Berdanier said.

It also meant educating the community on the system’s safety, as well as to teach them about water conservation. “Consumption was really high. They were using water like Americans,” Berdanier said.

After reviewing the plans, UAC gave the go-ahead to install a gravity-fed chlorination system to treat the water on the university’s upper campus and meet World Health Organization (WHO; Geneva) standards for developing countries.

Students from South Dakota State installed the first chlorinator in 2012, training UAC student workers to test chlorine levels and modulate the system.

McGuinness stands near the waterfall above the upper campus of Unidad Academica Campesina in Carmen Pampa.  This is the main water supply for the campus. Photo courtesy of Berdanier.

McGuinness stands near the waterfall above the upper campus of Unidad Academica Campesina in Carmen Pampa. This is the main water supply for the campus. Photo courtesy of Berdanier.

“The system is very low-tech,” Berdanier said. “There’s no electricity involved, just plumbing. The university is committed to buying chlorine tablets and hiring students to maintain the system. It’s all self-sustaining.”

Joined by Fairfield students, Berdanier and the South Dakota State students returned this past August both to make modifications that would make the system even easier for students to maintain, and to survey the land in preparation for installing two additional chlorinators for the water systems supplying the university’s lower campus.

A student also spent a week surveying the UAC community. More than half said their health had improved since the chlorinator was installed. A local doctor anecdotally confirmed that the system had cleared up bacterial infections, according to Berdanier.

Still, skeptics remained. Some of those surveyed doubted that a chlorination system had actually been installed. Tours and demonstrations of the system’s testing equipment helped change that perception, Berdanier said.

Installing additional chlorinators to improve treatment standards

Berdanier has received the approval and is planning for the two EWB chapters to install chlorinators at the lower campus next summer, he said. They will provide preliminary design on sand filters for both campuses as well.

Their goal is to move beyond WHO to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for both water and wastewater treatment. “It’s important that we start protecting down-stream communities from the waste generated by the university,” Berdanier said.

As treatment standards increase, so do project costs. With donated labor, students can build a chlorinator and security box for about $1000, Berdanier said. Sand filters will require a $10,000 investment. Berdanier estimates wastewater treatment will cost significantly more — $100,000 to $200,000 — much of which he hopes to raise through grants and donations.

“Our schedule will depend on how fast we can secure the funding,” Berdanier said. “We all have a deep connection with that university now,” he said. “We’re committed to making it happen.”

                                                                                                — Mary Bufe, WEF Highlights

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