Engineering Students Bring Clean Water to Town in Bolivia

Submitted by Nina M. Riccio on November 21, 2013

Even in this day and age, clean drinking water is still troublingly scarce in many parts of the developing world.

It is a commodity that can come at a high cost. Without the proper infrastructure to rid unhealthy water of bacteria, illness can be widespread among people and farm animals.

A group from Fairfield University’s School of Engineering is fixing that problem in a rural farming community in Bolivia. In August, Dr. Bruce W. Berdanier,

Students from Fairfield University and South Dakota State University collaborated on a service project in Bolivia. Front Row, L-R: Melinda Berdanier; Emily Sumner (SD). Back Row: Dr. Bruce Berdanier, dean of Fairfield’s School of Engineering; Sean McGuinness, (Fairfield); Jedidiah Reimnitz, (SD); Matt Auch, (SD); Deidre Beck, (SD); Katherine Pitz, (Fairfield).

the new dean of the school, and two undergraduates travelled to Carmen Pampa, where they worked on a water treatment system at the Unidad Academica Campesina (UAC), “the united college for the peasants.” A branch university of the Catholic University in Bolivia, the institution draws from 19 villages, offering programs in nursing, veterinary science, agriculture and teaching. Efforts involved modifying a chlorinator, a device that destroys parasites, bacteria and other organisms in drinking water that can lead to disease.

“I think that a major part of what engineers do is to provide a service,” said Dr. Berdanier, who has extensive experience in international service learning initiatives. “They see a problem and collaborate to fix it with their skills and knowledge.”

Dr. Berdanier helped install the chlorinator last year on the UAC upper campus with a student chapter of ‘Engineers Without Borders’ from South Dakota State University where he was professor and department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The South Dakota and Fairfield students collaborated on this most recent phase of the service project. Thanks to the equipment, the drinking water there now meets World Health Organization (WHO) standards for developing countries.

“What we did makes maintaining the chlorinator easier for the students,” said junior Katherine Pitz, who worked on the project with another Fairfield mechanical engineering major, Sean McGuinness. “We spent a lot of time surveying the land to build two more chlorinators on two different water systems that supply water to the lower campus. We also surveyed the land below the wastewater tank because future plans include building a wastewater treatment system.”

Water chlorination is greatly needed. According to UNICEF, 768 million people don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, and unclean water can be deadly.

In Carmen Pampa, many in the area have been afflicted with stomach distress due to the poor drinking water quality. In less than 20 years, the university went from just 53 students to 700 students. Due to this expansive growth, UAC has had challenges in adequate potable water systems for its two campuses. The fulfillment of this service project will provide the university with consistent potable water, while eliminating problems with student illnesses. It will also provide an answer to wastewater management, protecting down-stream communities from the waste generated by the university.

“A local doctor said on the recent trip that the chlorinator has helped reduce bacterial infections,” said Dr. Berdanier. “We were quite pleased to hear that.”

Feedback from the UAC community was also promising, with fifty-three percent of the people surveyed noting their health has improved since the chlorinator was installed.

The hope is to eventually upgrade the water supply there so it meets United States water standards. Additionally on the trip, an education session on perceptions of clean water for improved health was held, and Melinda Berdanier, wife of the Fairfield dean, lent her skills by assisting UAC professors in delivering English-speaking classes in the Tourism degree program.

The experience was eye opening to Pitz who realized that engineering projects in developing countries must be very different than in America. “They have to be sustainable for the resources they have there,” she said. “I think the most important thing about it is to help [Bolivians] learn to improve the systems themselves, so they do not have to rely on anyone in the future. Maybe they will be able to build a similar system in other places in Bolivia where clean water is needed.”

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