Engineering students begin water-quality projects in Kenyan village

by Sandra Knisely for UW Communications

A warm glass of brackish water isn’t much relief after spending a day in the sun tilling your small farm by hand and guarding your crops from animals or thieves.

Unfortunately, for residents of the small Kenyan agricultural community of Orongo, the alternative to drinking the salty — but safe — water from distant boreholes (shafts dug deep into the water table) is drinking water from backyard wells contaminated by nearby pit latrines.

It’s an unpleasant choice that villagers won’t have to make for much longer if engineering students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders have their way. Four students and an adviser were in Orongo from Aug. 11-30, learning about the community’s problems and brainstorming solutions for a variety of issues plaguing the village of almost 3,000 people.

Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities around the world. In addition to Kenya, the UW-Madison chapter works in Rwanda, Haiti, El Salvador and Red Cliff, Wis. Several of the group’s projects focus on water-related issues, but the Kenya project has special significance because of the country’s recent political unrest.

The students originally planned to travel to Kenya in January, but the trip was delayed after violence erupted in the aftermath of a contentious presidential election. Orongo was cut off from the nearby city that provides food, resulting in two months of famine. Additionally, the regional office of the national water services board was burned and looted, which means the board has no vehicles and little lab equipment to test water.

When biomedical engineering student Nathan Werbeckes, computer science graduate student Mark Liu, mechanical engineering students Michael Heiss and Gavin Weir, and professional engineer and UW-Madison alumnus Dick Otis were finally able to travel in August, they took with them several water-testing kits. The results from local wells were astonishing; one family was drinking from a well with more than 500 fecal bacteria coliforms per micro liter. The World Health Organization advises drinking water with a fecal coliform count of zero.

Collaboration will be the key to solving the water issues. EWB will pair with students in a UW-Madison introductory engineering course to design a system that will use nanoparticles to pull bacteria and viruses together into clumps, making it easier to remove them from water. The process is called capacitive deionization.

Water quality is not the only problem the EWB students will tackle. They plan to design a gravity-based irrigation system that will make it easier for farmers to water their crops. Currently, farmers dump buckets of water over the plants, which is inefficient and requires significant manual labor to transport water from the wells to the fields.

The students also are researching ways to improve the community’s economy. The group will help Orongo entrepreneurs develop business plans and contact microfinance banks to begin small enterprises. Few villagers have bank accounts or understand how banks work, so the students will help them learn business and financial basics.

“Of all our projects, finance will be the most difficult for both us and Orongo,” says Liu, who is the project co-manager along with Werbeckes. “However, I also feel it is the most important because this project actually addresses their poverty head-on instead of placing Band-aids on problems that never would have existed if they had more money.”

Along with helping people write their own proposals, EWB members will initiate an agroforestry project at the community school to teach students sustainable agriculture techniques. The fruit or firewood from the trees also will provide the community extra income.

The students spent the majority of the trip talking with community members and creating plans, but they were able to fit in a few hours of sightseeing. In addition to sampling tilapia eyeballs and fried minnows, they watched a lion eat a zebra and fought off baboons that persistently tried to steal their lunches at a national game reserve.

For Liu, building a connection with the community was at the heart of the trip. “The community taught me much more about life than I’ll ever be able to teach them about engineering,” he says.