Precious liquid

By Jesse Black

Every day, citizens of Champaign County access cold, clean, fresh water with the quick twist of a knob, perhaps not giving a second thought to its source. It pours seemingly out of nowhere into kitchens and bathrooms during daily routines of dish cleaning, showering and noodle boiling.

All of this comes from the Mahomet Aquifer, an underground reservoir of ground water that lies 50 feet below Champaign and spans 15 counties, providing Champaign County with an immediate source of water. According to engineering professor Clark Bullard, this county alone uses roughly 33 million gallons of water per day from the underground source, enough to fill about 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

But not every region on the planet has the luxury of such a titanic source of unpolluted water. Case in point: the small African village of Adu Achi. Nestled in the Oji River local government area in southeast Nigeria, the remote village has long struggled with acquiring and distributing clean water from a sustainable source.

Without a robust plumbing system running throughout the village, obtaining clean water had long been a challenge for the villagers of Adu Achi. For half of the year, villagers would have to walk three kilometers out of town to a stream, fill up a five-gallon, military-style jerry can and make the trip back with the day’s water supply. The other half of the year is the rainy season, and water is easily collected in large, open containers. However, this standing water quickly stagnates and becomes tainted with harmful, disease-causing contaminants.

Subsequent trips to the distant stream were made only more difficult for villagers stricken with disease spread by use of this spoiled water.

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In 2004, Engineers Without Borders USA, a nonprofit organization devoted to supplying solutions to the problems of sanitation, water and sustainability problems in remote areas, accepted a proposal to help Adu Achi, and the University chapter took up the challenge.

Labeled the Nigeria Water Project, the endeavor has since involved five trips to the site. During the first visit, student members of EWB assessed the challenges and possible strategies of addressing the village’s water problems and implemented a water system during subsequent annual visits spanning from 2007 to 2009.

“We constructed a water system consisting of a 500-foot well connected to a submersible electric pump,” said Kevin Weyant, project leader and senior in Engineering.

This electric pump, powered by a generator, swiftly pumps water up and out of a deep well, dug by the students, and into two 23,000 gallon metal tanks. They supply the village with water by circulating it through a special distribution system.

A pipeline now traces the major dirt road of Adu Achi, acting as an artery to shuttle clean water from the sustainable underground source to be distributed across the small village. Public taps have also been peppered across town, allowing easy access to clean water at several points. While the system does not run directly through the homes of Adu Achi residents, water access is nevertheless made significantly more convenient.

Although the implementation phase of the Nigeria Water Project seems complete for now, members plan to maintain this communication with the locals of Adu Achi for several years, to ensure the system is kept functioning.

This is easier said than done, however, as challenges faced by project members not only include planning and setting up entire engineered systems but interacting with and instructing locals on site.

Students had to train villagers to continue operating the new system in their absence, Weyant explained, and although the language on location is primarily English, difficulties in training and education arose.

“One of the biggest challenges this project deals with is actually communication, as it can be very difficult to get the community to understand what is necessary for maintaining a sustainable system,” Weyant said.

EWB members also faced similar issues setting up biosand filters in Guatemala in an effort to remove harmful pathogens from water right where it is used. Students had to ensure that staff of their on-site partner organization, Wuqu’ Kawoq, which provides health care to Guatemalans, could maintain them on their own.

“The UIUC team wrote up a biosand filter usage and maintenance manual as a reference for Wuqu’ Kawoq staff. Any time there is a question regarding the filters, Wuqu’ Kawoq staff can refer to the manual,” said Hanting Wang, student and project leader of the Guatemala Water Project.

Despite these difficulties, the positive impact on human lives is clear to Wang.

“Although it took time and constant education and follow-up, families are now confident in using the filters. There has been a 50 percent decrease in diarrheal diseases, and overall, community members, especially children, are healthier” Wang said.

These projects are but two of many endeavors undertaken by the University chapter of EWB. Founded in 2003, the registered student organization is supported by partnerships with both the EWB-USA and the communities in which projects are based. The engineering plans and designs are put together by student volunteers with the help and expertise of professional engineer mentors.

“One unique thing about the club is that the students do a lot of the engineering work and implementation that isn’t necessarily required or taught in class,” Weyant said. “The mentors are here to offer assistance, but the majority of the work is done by the student members themselves.

Student members of EWB grapple with similar projects across the globe.

“Although the majority of these projects are water-quality and distribution-based, our Ntisaw project (in Cameroon) does have a sanitation component, and our newest Soppo Likoko project (in Cameroon) is a bridge project. We have also worked on a bio-electrification project in India and a latrine project for a community in Kenya,” said EWB’s president and senior in Engineering, Reshmina William.

The EWB national organization relies on its chapters to take on and complete projects and has given over $2.2 million to help fund chapters like EWB UIUC, said Kelsey Kojetin, spokeswoman for the national organization of EWB.

“EWB-USA’s partnerships with chapters like the UIUC chapter are key to fulfilling our mission. EWB-USA’s chapter members are the boots on the ground of our mission to build a better world,” Kojetin said.

The University chapter boasts over 100 of these active student members and not all of them are engineering majors. William believes the diversity of perspectives and know-how of students of different majors is vital to the success of the club’s many projects. “Health-related majors are also very welcome, since they provide invaluable insight in developing the metrics and materials we need to evaluate a project’s effectiveness. We also encourage business majors to give their input on how to make our projects more financially sustainable,” William said.

Here at home, the club also participates in and organizes events to educate the community in the Champaign-Urbana area to shed light on issues of eco-friendliness and water distribution in poverty-stricken areas across the globe. Most recently, EWB-participated in Global Water Day on campus Oct. 22, showing off their aforementioned biosand filters and working with other clubs to fundraise for projects.

Through these projects, EWB offers student members a chance to hone their skills at solving complex problems while also creating healthier, greener and more sustainable environments across the planet.

EWB also works to broaden the perspectives of its student members, Weyant said, because it provides experience with the nuanced and often times dire situations faced by humans inhabiting distant and remote areas.

“A lot of these countries would not be visited by students if not for projects like the Nigeria Water Project. In this way, the club allows students to see places one would not normally see,” Weyant said.

“(EWB) lends them the ability to solve real-world problems and develop empathy by urging them to not build for people- but with them,” William said.

Jesse is a junior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected].