Pratt Students Expand Overseas Work

Focus on Water Distribution in Uganda, Bridges in El Salvador

Duke undergraduates in the Pratt School of Engineering have been making a difference in the developing world through involvement in Duke’s chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB) and the similar organization Duke Engineers for International Development (DEID).

Duke’s EWB chapter has been established on campus for seven years, but the organization has recently experienced major changes with the formation of DEID, prompted by a March 2011 cease-and-desist letter sent from the national level of EWB (EWB-USA) to the Duke chapter.

EWB-USA was not willing to support the number of projects that the Duke EWB chapter had initiated: the national level of EWB cannot support multiple projects at the numerous university chapters of EWB. There are not enough resources at the national level to subject each project to the same rigorous evaluation, and EWB does not allow its name to be associated with projects that it has not inspected and approved. Accordingly, the cease-and-desist letter ordered the Duke chapter of EWB to maintain only one EWB project at a time.

Undaunted by this problem, then-president of EWB, senior Maria Gibbs, formed DEID. Leaving one project — an engagement in Uganda to improve water collection efficiency at springboxes — under the EWB name, Gibbs formed DEID as a way to continue the group’s work at sites in Egypt, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Kenya.

DEID is distinct from EWB because its projects are not critiqued by EWB-affiliated experts. Instead, Duke professors — most commonly the group’s faculty advisor David Schaad, associate professor of the practice of civil and environmental engineering  — evaluate DEID projects. Ultimately, the group has “practically the same mission” as EWB, according to DEID materials, as its intention is to allow “students to unleash their creativity ...to provide communities with more sustainable and enduring projects,” as stated by the DEID website.

For students interested in engineering, EWB and DEID provide an opportunity to gain practical engineering experience and valuable exposure to professional mentors, Gibbs said. The trips that each individual project group takes also give participants an experience of cultural immersion and cultivate lasting friendships. Gibbs said  that EWB “defined my Duke experience,” noting that the work EWB/DEID teams do is “changing the lives of generations of people” in the developing world.

Current EWB/DEID co-president Ale Ferrara also cited the organization as “one of the reasons I came to Duke.” The projects run by EWB and DEID not only improve conditions in the developing world, but also provide valuable learning and developmental opportunities for Duke students involved in the program.

One of these projects is the EWB-affiliated project in Uganda, led by junior Reema Sil. Duke EWB is working in the village of Nkokonjeru, Uganda to optimize the design of springboxes installed by the Dutch colonizers of Uganda to improve water collection. According to Gibbs, although “water quality is pretty good, distribution is the problem” in this area.

During peak times of water need, such as in the early morning or after school, many people (often children) will line up at the springbox and attempt to collect water as it slowly trickles out of the ground. This process takes hours, keeping children from doing schoolwork or assisting their parents in other ways. To address this, Duke EWB has proposed a “springbox modification which will include a storage tank,” according to Gibbs, which will allow water to collect during off-peak times and thereby decrease wait times for water collection during peak activity. This project is nearing completion, and a trip is planned for the summer to work out logistics associated with the project’s requisite materials and to implement the design. If the improvements are successful, they may be applied to other springboxes across Uganda to increase water distribution efficiency.

The DEID projects in El Salvador and Bolivia, led by junior Robin Farrell and junior and EWB/DEID co-president Kathryn Latham respectively, both involve the construction of pedestrian bridges to alleviate the problem of rural isolation.

An assessment trip to El Salvador in the fall of 2010 revealed that rural isolation is a significant problem: seasonal flooding from June to October cuts off communities from roads to markets and also prevents children from getting to school. Unable to access markets to sell their produce and unable to obtain education, the people of affected communities become trapped in a cycle of poverty. Previous attempts to bridge the crossing have failed, and people are often “desperate” to cross the gorges, and many die in the attempt, according to Gibbs.

To combat this issue, DEID partnered with Bridges to Prosperity, an NGO now no longer involved in El Salvador, to build a suspended pedestrian bridge. The bridge will serve eight communities in Cantón el Barrillo and ensure access to markets and schools during the flooding season. Designs for the bridge will be evaluated in terms of cost, availability of materials, and lifespan, and the chosen design will be implemented in summer of 2012.

DEID’s work in Bolivia resembles the work done at the El Salvador site. At this site, Cochabama, three villages are separated by a river gorge that is impassable during flooding. Rural isolation is again a pressing issue in this location, and so a 58-meter span suspended pedestrian bridge has been designed for this site. Bridges to Prosperity has already established its foundations for the bridge, but better survey data is still needed to refine the final design of this bridge. Finalizing a bridge design and fundraising will be the dominant activities for this project this semester, and a three-week trip is planned for DEID members to finish construction of the bridge this summer.

In a project led until recently by junior and EWB/DEID co-president Ale Ferrara and now overseen by junior Felipe Gaitan, DEID is evaluating the needs of two sites in Kenya: Soysambu and Mbirikani. In Soysambu, the community has recently begun construction of a health clinic, but access to water and electricity remains a significant issue. It is prohibitively expensive for the clinic to connect to the local electric grid, and there is no water harvesting system.

In Mbirikani, access to water and electricity remains unreliable, and defense from wildlife from a local game reserve also presents issues. Currently, the community uses a diesel pump for water and burns animal waste for cooking and heating. Neither of these methods are sustainable: the diesel pump is expensive and polluting to run, and burning animal waste for heat and cooking purposes is similarly unsustainable. Potential DEID projects will address these needs. This semester, the team working on the Kenya project will divide into two groups, with one focusing on water issues, and the other on energy issues. Alternative energy sources such as wind power are being considered, but sustainability will remain the “most pertinent objective” for the project, according to the DEID website.

DEID’s project in Egypt is the newest and the least-developed of its projects. Current sophomore Ramy Khorshed proposed the idea for a project in Egypt last year, but political unrest and a ban on Duke-related travel to the country last year delayed progress. A project in this area will include collaboration with the American University of Cairo, and may focus on any of a number of options, such as implementation of a solar energy or irrigation system. A more definite idea will be influenced by the results of an assessment trip slated to occur this summer, and this semester’s plans for this project will involve planning and logistics of the trip.

A major focus of all EWB/DEID projects is that they are sustainable and “community-driven,” according to Gibbs. During assessment trips, EWB/DEID does not define a need for the community, but instead allows a need to become evident: “if we offered...solar panels...they would take that, but that might not be their greatest need,” said Gibbs. Additionally, EWB/DEID works to make each project sustainable — designs must be environmentally responsible and easy to maintain. This ensures the projects implemented by Duke EWB and DEID will continue to serve their respective communities in the future.