Tufts students hope to engineer a drinking water solution for Ugandan village

Clean water is something most Tufts students take for granted, but for the residents of Shilongo Village, Uganda, it’s a constant concern and just one of many quality-of-life issues that a group of Tufts students hopes it can help improve.

This May, members of the Tufts branch of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) will be making the trek to Shilongo Village to assess the most pressing issues of the community and assess potential solutions. They will later return to implement their plans. The Uganda trip is only the latest of several for the Tufts branch, which has previously done projects in Tibet, Ecuador and is currently in the middle of a project in El Salvador.

EWB was founded in 2002 and now has over 12,000 members from 300 chapters. The organization focuses on “low-tech, high-impact projects in … developing countries” according to its Web site.

Shilongo Village is located in Uganda’s Mbale region. There is currently only one polluted water source for the village of 1,000 people, all of whom live on an income less than $1 a day.

Sophomore Scott McArthur proposed the idea for an EWB project in Uganda. Last summer, McArthur visited Shilongo village and has been in contact with Samuel W. Watulatsu, the founder of the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities, an NGO devoted to improving the quality of life for Ugandans.

These sorts of connections with local communities are common for EWB projects. “The projects usually come from some sort of pre-assessment connection … we have to turn down more projects than we can do. We sometimes refer engineers to projects that we can’t do,” sophomore and EWB member Ian MacLellan said.

The group usually works for a semester or two after its assessment before returning on its implementation trip. EWB members will do a follow-up trip after that to make sure their implemented projects are functioning smoothly.

The length of these trips often depends on how far away their destination is. The Uganda trip will be three weeks, while a recent trip to El Salvador lasted one.

“You want to stay as long as possible because you want to build a relationship and get as much value [from your visit] as possible,” MacLellan said.

Even if individual visits might be only a few weeks, EWB projects represent lengthier commitments to the communities involved. “An EWB project is usually a four- to five-year commitment from pre-implementation to follow-up, so that’s sort of more reinforcing education, checking out how community ownership of the project is going and sort of figuring out what the impact of it was,” MacLellan said. “Were there changes in the community from an epidemiological perspective? Was there an improvement in health, and was this project successful? How could we make it better?”

Because the duration of an EWB project usually outlasts an undergraduate’s time at Tufts, the group works to get students involved in leadership positions quickly to keep the projects going.

“Generally, we’ll have somebody who’s been [there] go on each trip so that it’s not completely new people. That’s not always the case, but that’s something we generally try to do,” McArthur said. “The community and the people we work with know us as Tufts EWB and not as individuals necessarily so that kind of works out OK that way.”

The group members try to keep an open mind before going on their implementation trips. However, Tufts EWB does strive to take its project community’s suggestions into account.

“[This is] kind of a water-specific project; that’s what the community identified as their greatest need. We’ll be doing water quality testing, so we try to acquire as much data and information as we can and build a strong relationship with the community and then our next trip will be an implementation trip,” McArthur said. “We want to go into the community kind of without a specific idea in mind and hear from them what they want.

“So far, the community has said that they most need better access to water, machinery for grinding grain and fuel efficient stoves,” he added.

Cultural and linguistic differences are one of the biggest issues EWB encounters in communities. The people of Shilongo Village speak Lugisu, so the group will be communicating through interpreters. “Beyond that, it’s really trying to figure out how to work with what they have because the village we’re going to, there’s no electricity,” Tufts EWB member and freshman Drew Fuchs said.

EWB strives to make the communities part of the project process. “You don’t want to offend anyone there so we have to be careful about how we approach the situation. A lot of communities will be offended by people coming in and saying, ‘Here, we’re going to give you this,’ and we try and make the point that’s not what we’re doing. We don’t come here to build something for you and take off. It’s a very integrated learning and participation project,” McArthur said.

“It’s more of a partnership than a ‘we’re telling you what to do because we know better.’ It’ll never be successful if they don’t own their own project. They won’t be able to sustain it by themselves,” Fuchs added.        EWB tries to avoid engineering solutions for the community that use parts the community cannot obtain. “It’s either we’ll design and make something here or we’ll try and use the resources that they have on site to make something so that way if the thing breaks down, they have everything the village might need to rebuild it, replace it or fix it up. We’re not just bringing in some fancy gizmo and gadget that breaks,” Fuchs said. “Otherwise the project will only last so long. We want it to last as long as the village needs it.”

Although Engineers Without Borders’ name emphasizes its engineering members, there is no one type of engineer or even student that EWB attracts. “The misconception is that we’re all engineers that all work on the project, but it’s actually split about 50-50 with liberal arts students and engineers because something we really stress is having the kind of holistic viewpoint: getting the scope that other students have because we deal with community health issues as well,” McArthur said.

McArthur added that the group has a large contingent of community health majors. “Generally, for actual implementation of projects … the actual engineering designs that we deal with are civil and environmental,” he said.

Although the projects are all student-led, a professor or mentor — such as a professional engineer — is always present on EWB trips. The professor traveling with the assessment group to Uganda is Associate Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Chris Swan.

“The more we can use faculty to our advantage, the more we try to. There’s a lot of good professors here that are interested in getting involved and are eager to help us out, which is great,” McArthur said.

“They serve more of an oversight role; they don’t tell us what to do, it’s more they make sure we’re not doing anything stupid,” MacLellan said.

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