Students hope to bring clean water to Ugandan village in Engineers Without Borders project

February 5, 2010

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

MIT students recently established a campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders and adopted their first project: providing electricity and clean water to a health clinic in southern Uganda. But in typical MIT student fashion, the MIT Engineers Without Borders group plans to expand the stated mission of the project to include improvements to the drinking water quality and distribution system for the entire village, if they can raise the necessary money.

“The mission of Engineers Without Borders is to improve the lives of the community. It didn’t seem right for us to improve the clinic’s water source without improving water for the entire community,” said Rebecca Gianotti, a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who is head of the project’s water team.

The Engeye Health Clinic, located in the village of Ddegeya, serves about 5,000 people living in the area. A U.S. physician, Stephanie Van Dyke, working with Ugandan John Kalule, established the clinic in 2007. Engeye is now a joint U.S.-Ugandan nongovernmental organization staffed by Ugandans — two full-time nurses, a doctor who makes the four-hour trip from the capital city of Kampala once a week, and clinic manager Kalule. It operates without running water, with just enough solar energy to power a couple of light bulbs, and no overnight capacity. But for the local people, it represents the only medical care available to them. The closest large clinic is a 40-minute, $1 taxi drive away, a trip that most people simply cannot afford.

The MIT chapter selected the Engeye Health Clinic project from a list of those provided by the national EWB, in part because the collaborative efforts of Van Dyke and Kalule to establish the clinic created a strong community base that the MIT team will use to bolster its own efforts, according to MIT chapter president, Rebecca Heywood, a sophomore majoring in environmental engineering science. About a third of the group’s 45 members study civil and environmental engineering.

Involving the community is essential for a sustainable project

Heywood and project head Helen D’Couto, a sophomore in biology, met with the Ddegeya village council last summer and held a community meeting attended by about 75 local people. That sort of interest and participation are crucial, because the national EWB approves only those plans that use materials and labor that can be sustained at locally.

For instance, Heywood said that wiring the clinic and connecting it to the closest electrical grid would be possible, but not sustainable, because it would require the clinic to pay a monthly cost. The group is considering alternative ideas, such as installing more solar panels. Whatever the team chooses, the power source will provide enough energy to run a very basic lab (a centrifuge, a microscope) and a refrigerator for storing vaccines.

The largest water source near Ddegeye is a small dug pond called Nalongo or “mother of the twins” in Luganda. One of the area's two working boreholes with a pump is near that pond, but the pump is slow and the lines of people long, so the villagers frequently gather water from the pond instead, even though it’s likely to have a high turbidity and bacterial contamination. Some also collect rainwater in barrels, using the trunks of banana trees as conduits.

Water from all of these sources needs to be treated for microbes, so in a trip last month, graduate students Kevin Kung and David Whittleston set up four families with water treatment technologies — sand filter and solar pasteurization — that they can try out over the coming months to see which they prefer. In the longer term, the water team will also consider possibilities for improving the distribution system, which now consists primarily of people carrying jugs of water over long distances.

“People, mostly children, travel up to two miles to get to the water. And for the kids, it’s a lot of labor — carrying jerrycans up and down the hills everyday,” said Gianotti. Proposed alternatives include using barrels on wheels or drilling borehole wells closer to homes.

The students hope to get the national EWB’s approval for stage one of the plan and begin implementation in summer. However, one major obstacle remains: the national organization provides project ideas and approves plans, but it doesn’t provide funding.

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