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The Engineers Without Borders team is all smiles after finishing the water tower for villagers and students.

Water works

Engineers Without Borders-UMN brings clean water and a brighter future to a Ghanaian village

By Charlie Plain

From M, spring 2008

In the rural Ghanaian village of Amponsah Akroase, the water local school children drank often made them too sick to come to class. "The villagers just had a dirty stream down the road that they'd get their water from," says Jamie Velkoverh, a member of the U's student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UMN). The roads near the school are unpaved and lined with open sewers. Any local water source is likely to hold Guinea Worm larvae, which grow to three feet long inside the intestines of villagers, then emerge through a painful blister in the skin.

Velkoverh and a water engineering team from EWB-UMN traveled to the village to fix the problem. The call to aid came from the Minnesota Christian Academy, a school in the village started by a Minneapolis teacher. The fact that the group answered the plea is a testament to both its expertise and compassion.

Engineers Without Borders-USA founder to speak

Bernard Amadei, founding president of Engineers Without Borders-USA, will present a public lecture at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 4 in the Van Vleck Auditorium, Tate Laboratory of Physics, 116 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis. A reception will precede the event at 6:30 p.m.

Bridging borders The student group formed in 2005 and has 30 eager and active members committed to the organization's mission. "Our goal is to partner with disadvantaged communities around the world that lack safety, security, health, water supply, sanitation, and energy to give them the necessities to live a better life," says chapter president Brian Bell. The group has gotten off to a quick start working on their projects despite being only three years old. "Our chapter has done projects in Guatemala, Ghana, and we're currently working on others in Uganda and Haiti" says Bell. For Bell and the EWB-UMN members, projects like the Ghana school offer a chance to improve their skills as well as the world. "It provides an... opportunity for students to get involved with these incredible projects that are changing thousands of people's lives around the world," says Bell.

But the endeavors are expensive: The Uganda project, without travel expenses, is expected to cost about $35,000, according to Bell.

Gone to Ghana EWB-UMN's solution to the water problem in Amponsah Akroase was to install a water distribution system consisting of eight 180-watt solar panels used to power a 300-volt submersible pump filling a 6,500-liter holding tank. The system was designed to be easy to build, cheap to operate, self-sufficient, and above all, reliable.

Andrew Sander, right, secures cables with zip ties.
Andrew Sander, right, secures cables with zip ties.

The very first day in the village the team set to work feeding pipes into the pre-drilled well. The top goal for the day was to at least get the water pumping. "We wanted to show we meant business," says EWB-UMN member Andrew Sander. Much to the villagers' delight, by the time the sun set the team had water flowing out of a pipe and into a steel drum. "Everyone from the community was there and cheering," recounts Velkoverh. The next phase of the project was to erect a small-scale water tower and run distribution lines to the school and village. Building the tower meant the team had to do make due with what's termed "in-country appropriate technology," or in other words, locally available materials. Exotic components, like the solar panels and the water pump, were flown to Ghana as checked luggage, but basic building materials were bought near the village. Often, the homegrown parts weren't exactly what the team had in mind. Components like pipes were found in inconsistent dimensions, but with a little ingenuity and adaptability, the team made everything work.

Most of the project's materials were purchased from small specialty stores lining a nearby highway. Shopping trips for construction supplies usually took place each morning for a couple of hours. Once items were found, paying for them proved to be an additional challenge. "There were no price tags," said Sander. "You had to bargain to get a fair price," adds Velkoverh. The team arrived with all the tools, as well as odds and ends, it would need. The packing list included unique items like "a lot of Sharpies," 1,000 zip ties, 200 feet of 8-guage wire, and something the local villagers couldn't keep their hands off.

As the group's lone woman, Velkoverh saw how impressed the local girls were to see her working as an engineer alongside men. It made her quite popular. "The girls would come up to me and say, 'I want you to be my friend,'" says Velkoverh. In turn, the girls taught her a few important things.

"We brought a couple of cordless drills, which they had never seen before," says Sander. Velkoverh remembers having a hard time keeping hold of her drill. "I'd be working on something and they would always want to take it away and use it themselves."

Life lessons After two weeks of hard work, the water tower was up and running. Initially, the pump filled the tank at a rate of 10 liters per minute, with expectations its performance would improve with adjustments. All the same, for the first time Amponsah Akroase had a safe, reliable source of water.

The EWB-UMN team, rather fittingly, learned many important lessons. As the group's lone woman, Velkoverh saw how impressed the local girls were to see her working as an engineer alongside men. It made her quite popular. "The girls would come up to me and say, 'I want you to be my friend,'" says Velkoverh. In turn, the girls taught her a few important things. "Personally, it was such a good experience to learn what life is like in these poorer countries and the importance of water." Sander echoes her sentiment. "It opens your engineering mind to the problems that are out there." The danger, of course, is that lessons such as these can be easily forgotten. For Sander and Velkoverh, the water well project only whets their appetites to learn more. Since serving in Ghana, Velkoverh has begun working on a project in Haiti to figure out a way to recycle plastic ration water bags into something usable, like sandals. As for Sander, he's heading to Guatemala on another water supply project, this time for a town of 3,000 people.