Bucknell Students Help Bring Running Water to Mountain Villagers in Nicaragua

El Porvenir, Nicaragua – Every two days during the dry season, a group of men gathers at 4 a.m. in this mountain-top village to begin the slow, dusty descent to a well 1,000 feet below.
The men pile into a tractor-drawn wagon and meander down a two-mile, steep, winding, cobblestone and dirt road, fill four large barrels from the well, then turn around and go back up. They repeat this process twice before collecting enough potable water to provide rations of two gallons a day for each of El Porvenir’s 285 residents.
"It takes a lot of diesel, time and energy," said Felice Chay of Project Gettysburg-Leon, a non-governmental organization associated with Gettysburg College that is working with Bucknell University and the Center for Development in Central America to construct a pipeline to increase water availability and eliminate rations. Chay lives in nearby Leon and was in El Porvenir working on the project last month when an alumni delegation of the Bucknell Brigade visited El Porvenir.
The pipeline project, which is nearly complete, is one of the many initiatives inspired by the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua during the service-learning program’s 10-year history. With the host agency, Jubilee House Community, brigadistas have worked on projects including construction of a health clinic, a spinning cooperative and other sustainable businesses for residents of Nueva Vida, a resettlement community formed after Hurricane Mitch hit Managua in 1998.

The waterline project got its start in spring 2006, when Sarah Woodard of JHC visited Bucknell. Woodard met with Charles Kim, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Adam Donato, Class of ’07, to discuss the potential for sustainable engineering projects in Nicaragua. That fall, a group of student engineers, working with Kim and Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Mike Toole, adopted the waterline initiative as their senior design project.
Donato and fellow 2007 classmates Rob Gradoville and Julie Jakobowski designed the pump for the waterline while Meghan Feller, also Class of ’07, worked on plans to extend a pipeline up the mountain. In January 2007, Gradoville, Jakobowski and Feller traveled with the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua to survey the situation first-hand. With the help of a local guide and a GPS system, the students staked out a path through the jungle, from the well to the mountain top.
The students were determined to proceed with the project after visiting El Porvenir and seeing for themselves how running water would benefit the residents.
"Although it was not as technical as a lot of other senior design projects, it was difficult because of all of the non-technical aspects and the constant reminder that actual people counted on us doing a great job," Gradoville said.
Shortly after they returned to Bucknell, the students secured a $10,000 grant from the Davis Foundation 100 Projects for Peace program, which helped fund the project, along with donations from the Bucknell community and Project Gettysburg-Leon.
Some were reluctant to pursue a Projects of Peace grant at first, Gradoville recalled, because of the competitiveness of the program and the fact that the students did not have experience in grant writing. Gradoville pushed forward, however, noting that the Bucknell engineers had been working on a plan and design for the water line for a year already. The students got help from a grant-writing specialist, and the project was approved.
"If the students hadn’t gotten the money for the project, it wouldn’t have happened," said Janice Butler, director of the Office of Service Learning, which coordinates the brigade trips.
El Porvenir is a modest village, peacefully set on top of a mountain. Homes are small but spaced apart, unlike the crowded, sprawling streets of Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. The village center consists of several wooden buildings, most dedicated to the coffee business that sustains the small community. Children ride bikes and play baseball, and a school was built a few years ago.
Residents do not, however, have running water for cleaning, cooking, drinking or bathing. They depend on a shallow pond for washing clothes and for other tasks that do not require potable water. They have no electricity. The only artificial light in the village comes from flashlights and two solar-powered fluorescent lights in the school. Residents use battery power for other needs and cook on wood stoves.
The 48 families that live in El Porvenir are part of a coffee cooperative that produces organic, shade-grown, sundried coffee for export to the United States. Last year, the cooperative produced about 40,000 pounds of coffee during the December harvest, said Rene Gaitan, vice president of the cooperative. Residents of El Porvenir also grow beans, corn, avocados and cacao and raise pigs, chicken and sheep.
Jubilee House Community has been working with the coffee cooperative since 2000, when members approached the organization and asked for help finding coffee buyers in the United States. Mike Woodard of JHC connected the cooperative with a distributor in Pittsburgh. The coffee also is sold on the Bucknell campus and at Lewisburg businesses.
The water line will greatly improve the quality of life and health of those in El Porvenir, many of whom have contracted parasites and developed urinary tract infections because of the scarcity of drinking water during the six-month-long dry season. Water also may be channeled to the coffee cooperative.
"It is a tremendous thing," said Mateo Ordonez, a member of the coffee cooperative who is in charge of production. "It will change many things."
The project also has given engineering students practical experience solving problems in a global context.
Gradoville, now a "water volunteer" for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, said the brigade "changed my life" and made him think more about how he could apply his skills as an engineer. He recently completed work on two aqueducts that will bring running water to families for the first time in an isolated mountain community. He also was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship to pursue a doctorate in sustainable engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
"When I got back from the three-week summer construction trip in Nicaragua, after graduating from Bucknell, I really felt like I had found finally, in the 21st century, the reason why engineers are needed in this world," Gradoville said recently. "We are here to get necessities to people that can’t do it for themselves."
Toole and Kim spent more than a year investigating alternative means for powering the pump after it became clear that the electrical grid could not be extended to the site of the new pump house, Toole said. Eventually, they decided to use a diesel generator to power the new pump. The El Porvenir residents then installed the galvanized pipe, which was purchased with donated funds from Bucknell and Project Gettysburg-Leon.
Toole and George Waltman, director of Bucknell’s product development lab, traveled to Nicaragua in March to complete the project. Toole helped install some of the remaining pipeline and the electrical cable to power the pump from the diesel generator while Waltman helped finalize the installation and adjustments to the pump. Toole and Waltman had to return to campus before the concrete pipe supports could be installed and the waterline turned on, but Toole said he is confident the project will be completed in the next few weeks.
"The project has definitely taken longer and a lot more of our personal time than we had expected," Toole said, "But we know it will all be worth it. Our students learned a lot about
engineering and construction in a global context from this project, and the wonderful people in El Porvenir will have their lives changed forever."