Engineering Students Work on Water System in Peru

Posted: July 25, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 25, 2011 at 7:16 am

By Catherine Ferraro

High in the snow-capped Andes Mountains of Southern Peru is the small agricultural community of San Isidro near Compone, where several Mason faculty members, students and alumni visited last month. They were there to implement a water storage system for the village of 100 people, mostly subsistence farmers dependent on the water supply for farming and drinking purposes.

The Mason team is part of a new organization called Engineering Students Without Borders (ESWB), and is housed in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Infrastructure Engineering (CEIE).

Though not yet an official student chapter of the nonprofit Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), their mission is the same — to address people’s basic needs by providing sustainable solutions for clean water, power, sanitation and education.

Putting Academic Learning into Practice

Mason-UMD team members meet with San Isidro community members to discuss plans for the new water storage system. Clockwise from bottom left are Trevor Hughes, member of the Mason team; Anibal Cabrera, president of San Isidro; Dimas, president of Compone; a San Isidro villager; John Guenther and Sean O'Bannon, members of the Mason team; a San Isidro villager; Barry Liner, Mason engineering professor; Neel Sanghvi, member of the UMD team; Katty Overcash, member of the Mason team; and Luis Cabrera, vice president of Compone. Photo by Jim Milliken

As faculty advisor for the group, Mason engineering professor Barry Liner understands the significance of this organization. Director of CEIE’s International Engineering Programs, Liner has more than 20 years of experience developing sustainable solutions for issues faced in developing countries. In addition, he serves as the director of the Water Science and Engineering Center at the Water Environment Federation in Alexandria, Va.

“Our [ESWB] program exposes students to issues and problems that are being faced internationally,” says Liner. “Most important, by putting their academic learning into practice, students participate in hands-on engineering experiences in countries all over the world.”

Instead of waiting to become a formal chapter of EWB-USA, Mason’s team joined forces with the University of Maryland’s (UMD) EWB student chapter on the project in the Andean village.

Last summer, Liner and Mariana Cruz, BS Civil Engineering ’11, traveled to San Isidro to assess the structural damages in the community’s irrigation network and existing water storage tank, which had resulted in severe water shortages for the entire community.

When the team returned to the United States, UMD’s team began work on improving the irrigation system, while Mason took on the challenge of developing a water storage system.

Mason team members Trevor Hughes, Sean O'Bannon and Katty Overcash work with San Isidro villager Vicente Cruz on the water tank. Photo by Jim Milliken

Senior engineering student Sean O’Bannon is Mason’s team project manager and led the team, which included several other civil engineering students who graduated this year: Jim Milliken, Trevor Hughes and John Guenther.

In addition, local engineering professionals worked with the team as mentors: Joanna Vivanco, MS Civil Engineering ’07, from ECS Mid-Atlantic; and Katty Overcash, BS Civil Engineering ’09, from the Prince William County Service Authority.

Considering the needs of the community, cost, availability of materials, impact on the environment and ease of construction and maintenance, the team decided the most viable option was to install two new plastic water tanks.

With the help of the San Isidro community, the team tracked down a water tank supplier near the village that would deliver the tanks directly to the work site. Each tank holds about 10,000 liters of water and can withstand all types of weather conditions.

“During the planning and design phase of the project, we drew from the problem-solving and analytical skills we have learned in class, while also ensuring that the system met the area’s needs,” says O’Bannon, who will serve as ESWB president next year.

“The entire experience was very eye-opening, and we learned a lot about the cultural implications of working with rural communities,” he adds.

Fund Raising, Too

Once the design was finalized, the team turned their attention to raising funds to cover their return trip to San Isidro, as well as building materials. They hosted a variety of fund-raising activities and received generous support from Mason’s Civil Engineering Institute, the CEIE Department, the Office of the Provost and the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

In the end, the students secured more than $15,000 for the project and returned to San Isidro last month to install the new water tanks.

“When we arrived, we were overwhelmed by the response from the community, who were so willing to be a part of this project,” says Milliken. “Some of these people didn’t have running water and couldn’t care for their farmlands. You could tell right away how much they appreciated our help and the fact that we considered their input throughout the process.”

For two weeks, the ESWB team worked with the community to demolish and dispose of the old tank. Then, each of the new 500-pound tanks was hoisted up the side of a mountain to the installation site, where they were connected to the existing water system fed by a natural spring. The water is stored in the tanks overnight and released to the community during the day for farming and human consumption as needed.

The rest of the trip was spent educating the community about how to maintain and operate the tanks using locally available hardware, thus ensuring a sustainable solution.

“The experiences one receives from being a part of Engineering Students Without Borders can’t be taught in a classroom,” says O’Bannon. “In real life, things go wrong; the plan doesn’t always go the way it was envisioned. Being able to adapt to your surroundings and fix things on the fly is what separates a true engineer from an academic.”


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