On The Rise—Quality of Water, Quality of Life From Northeast U.S. to Central Africa

A 5.096Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Bbanda is a small rural village of about 1,100 people in southern central Uganda, located 45 minutes from the closest town of Mityana. There is no electricity or reliable source of drinking water. But thanks to the work of some engineering students, that’s about to change.

Since 2009, volunteer members of the Northeastern University Chapter of Engineers Without Borders(EWB-USA NEU) have been working on providing a village-wide, water system for the community of Bbanda. The need for clean water in many developing countries, especially in Africa, is nothing new. Residents of Bbanda, many of them children, may walk two miles round-trip every day to fetch water that is often unsanitary. Because the children are often the ones fetching this water, they spend time walking to the spring instead of in the classroom.

In 2009, most water sources in Bbanda were open springs located throughout the village. These springs were often shared with animals, served as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and almost always tested positive for E. coli. At the time there were two borehole wells, one at the school and one at the clinic. Two additional boreholes were drilled after 2009 as a temporary solution. Alex Piers, electrical engineering and physics student, has been program director of Northeastern’s EWB-USA Chapter since 2014. "When the boreholes work, they work well," said Piers, "But they break a lot. The need for a water delivery system is plain to see."

The project’s goal is to establish 12 community tap stands dispersed throughout the village. Once these 12 tap stands are in place, almost every house will be within 400 m (¼ mile) of fresh water, shortening the present commute by as much as 2 km (1.5 miles) for some residents. A generator-driven pump will draw water from a well drilled by the EWB-USA to a storage tank on a hill. Gravity will carry water from the storage tank down to the tap stands across the village.

Under the guidance of retired engineer Timothy McGrath, members of the EWB-USA Chapter have made 11 trips to Uganda. In the early trips, the need for quality water was so dire that temporary relief projects were established. Along with the two boreholes, the team installed and rehabilitated several rainwater-harvesting systems at the schools. In the first stages of the master project, the team geo-located prominent structures in the town using a Trimble® GeoXTTM 3000 series handheld receiver. The data was processed using Trimble GPS Pathfinder® Office software. The newly-formed town map included the school, religious buildings, houses, as well as existing wells and springs. As the project progressed, the new pipelines–including enclosures and manholes– were geo-located to make an as-built plan of the new water system.

Excitement filled Piers’ voice as he shared that the group is close to completing the project. "We are extremely close to commissioning phase one," he said. EWB-USA NEU has already drilled and coordinated construction on the storage tank, as well as five tap stands. Commissioning phase one will activate these five community tap stands. Phase two will add seven tap stands at the outskirts of the village. Throughout the second stage of the project, the team will geo-locate the new pipeline and tap stands using the R3 receiver and add these features to their existing map.

The group has a local supplier for the pump and generator; they are now waiting for funds, which will come from a variety of sources such as grants from the university, personal donations, corporate sponsors, and their partner NGO. Working with local suppliers means that money paid for parts and labor will stay in Uganda. This also ensures that a local mechanic will be familiar with these machines and able to make necessary repairs should the pump or generator fail. It will only take a few days for installation and testing before the system can be activated. "Basically we just need to buy a pump and generator and install them," said Piers, "then we can get safe water to these people." Piers hopes the project will be completed in May 2015, after spring classes are over.

EWB-USA NEU has seen a tremendous amount of community input and involvement since the project began in 2009. Most of the water pipeline has been trenched and laid by the villagers themselves. What’s been lacking in this community, as with most EWB-USA project areas, are the engineering skills to develop a system and see it to completion. Since its incorporation in 2002, EWB-USA has been connecting engineering students with developing countries in order to find solutions to their infrastructure needs. Often times the need is clean drinking water. The Northeastern University chapter, located in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of several across the country. It consists mostly of civil engineers but its student members represent many of the school’s disciplines.

Responsibility for maintaining the system will eventually fall to the community’s water board, a group of 17 members from different facets of the Ugandan community. However, in the year following the system’s activation, EWB-USA NEU will return to test and monitor the water quality. This will ensure a smooth and successful transfer of ownership and responsibility. Sustainability is one of EWB-USA NEU’s top priorities.

Piers said that community involvement with the project has been a huge part of its success. Community members have been working right along with the engineers, performing much of the labor work, especially when the EWB-USA NEU team is gone. Piers noted that it’s obvious the residents value the system and want to keep it up and running, he said, "They see the new system as a major improvement to their quality of life."

Gordon Wilson is a land surveyor-in-training (LSIT) and freelance writer located in Maine.

A 5.096Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE