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Engineering students to help sustain rural communities in Kenya

Engineering Without Borders in Kenya
June 10, 2013

A group of Arizona State University students will travel to Africa this summer to make progress on a five-year project to help improve the quality of life for residents of three rural villages in the country of Kenya.

Several members of the ASU chapter of Engineers Without Borders plan to spend about five weeks during July and August in the Bondo Rarieda district of Kenya to resurface one of several defective dams that are essential elements of the region’s water-supply system.

Water has been breaching the dams during the region’s rainy season. The spillover is preventing the communities from storing and making use of the water.

Last summer the team installed a rainwater catchment system to help the communities manage their water resources. The project’s success to date helped draw $31,000 in grants earlier this year from corporations and philanthropic organizations such as the Alcoa Foundation, Bechtel, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The funding will enable six of the more than a dozen ASU students involved in the Kenya Water Project to work at the project site this summer. They will help repair the breach and construct a spillway to handle overflow from one of the dams.

"Our plan is to design this system, teach [local residents] how to build it properly and explain to them why it makes a difference," says Danielle Worger, an industrial engineering graduate student and the co-program manager for the project.

The long-range goal is to equip villagers with the know-how to deal with the other dams that have structural problems, and then have them share that knowledge with neighboring communities.

"We really try to focus on sustainability and making sure the locals are familiar with the technology and can handle the upkeep," Worger says.

The ASU chapter is now seeing the results of its efforts to lay groundwork for the Kenya project over the past three years. "This is the first time we have had such a huge success in attracting grant funding," says Brittany Duong, a biomedical engineering major and the chapter president for the 2013-2014 academic year.

The team’s progress so far and its detailed plans for the future are expected to bolster its proposals for continued funding. "We asked all the right questions and we have the solutions. We just need the money to implement them,” Duong says.

The Kenya Water project got started when a native of the region, Benson Okongo Odongo, who earned a Ph.D. in education from ASU, sought help from the university’s Engineers Without Borders chapter to solve the region’s scarcity of potable water.

Students visited the site to assess the problems and began crafting engineering solutions. Then, last year, five students installed the 76,000-liter rainwater catchment tank at a local teachers training college to address the lack of potable water.

"In Kenya, water is everything.  The project mission is based on an old Kenyan proverb that means 'water is life,' " says civil engineering student Joshua Steele.

Before the catchment tank was installed, villagers had to trek many miles each day to the nearest water source.

Residents of the region have embraced the project. "Every community [ASU students] visit, the people greet and invite the team into their homes. [They are] genuinely happy to see them," Worger says.

The Kenya project team is being mentored by two professional engineering mentors: Jack Moody, a civil engineer with the Cardno WRG consulting company, and Greg Rodzenko, a civil engineer with the city of Glendale. They oversee the design work and will travel with the student team to the project sites this summer to supervise implementation.

ASU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter now has more than 25 active members and is working on several projects. The chapter’s faculty adviser is Edward Kavazanjian, a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Engineers Without Borders USA, a nonprofit organization started in 2000 in Boulder, Colorado, solicits support from major corporations that select chapter projects to fund.

The organization now has more than 12,000 student, faculty and professional members and 350 projects in more than 45 developing countries. It works to bring students and professional engineers together with rural communities in need of engineering solutions to their sustainability challenges.

Written by Natalie Pierce and Joe Kullman