EWB Continues Water Work in Kenya

Members of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) student chapter at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently returned from a three-week trip to Kenya, where they worked to improve drinking water for a rural farming village.

It was the third visit of the group as part of its long-term Kenya Water Program, which is aimed at providing a self-sufficient water supply for several thousand people in the rural farming village of the Namawanga area in western Kenya.

Namawanga, a community that raises sugarcane, sweet potatoes, and corn, relies on water sometimes located more than two miles away. Villagers walk to water sources often contaminated with animal and human waste or running dry during part of the year. Each household spends up to five hours a day getting water.

The EWB project will create reliable water sources for more than 3,000 people in the surrounding countryside and reduce their chances of contracting waterborne diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and cholera.

"The first thing we did on this trip was assess all the springboxes," says EWB Kenya Program team leader Christina Stauber, a graduate student in environmental engineering.

A springbox is a structure made of a concrete retaining wall with steel piping that collects and stores water from a natural spring. Ideally, each springbox should function to protect the spring water from contamination by human and animal waste and provide a point of collection. But most of the springboxes are ineffective, and EWB has been improving them, chiefly by building fencing around the boxes to keep out animals.

"There were about 15 springboxes and natural springs that we had to visit and assess," said Stauber. "Then, once we discussed the issues with the village, we got to work. We built fences around four springboxes this year. We fenced in four springboxes during our last trip to Kenya, and the villagers did another two. This trip we also built a new springbox from scratch on a natural spring that doesn't' t dry out. That means constructing the concrete water storage area to hold and discharge water from the spring."

The EWB team also did water quality and flow measurements of water sources and checked the status of previously installed fencing. One fence had obviously been invaded by a cow, and some posts had rotted in the 18 months since they were emplaced, so EWB worked with villagers to install steel fence posts set in concrete to keep out grazing animals.

The UMass Amherst EWB chapter has been raising the $20,000 required to drill a permanent deep borehole on the grounds of a technical school in Namawanga, where the surrounding community will have a clean, year-round water source. By contrast, it takes only about $100 to build a new springbox, but the water availability is less reliable than a well and the water more likely to be contaminated.

Accompanying Stauber were graduate student Amanda Keyes, undergraduates Patrick Border and Patrick Westropp; recent graduates Thomas Chase and Christopher Arsenault; John Tobiason, professor of civil and environmental engineering; and professional mentor David Bakuli. Bakuli earned his doctorate in industrial engineering from UMass Amherst in 1993 and now teaches at Westfield State College. He is also from western Kenya, so he knows the culture and speaks Swahili and the local language.

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