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U of M students travel to Bolivia to provide clean water options

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U of M students travel to Bolivia to provide clean water options

By Greg Russell

When University of Memphis civil engineering master’s candidate Sarah Girdner traveled to the small Bolivian village of Yarvicoya in one of the poorest regions of South America last year, her initial reaction was of culture shock. Imagine her thoughts later when the community ran out of water.

“That seems to be a common occurrence,” says Girdner. “It was a big shock seeing how these people live day to day. Many of them have no income. The only food they eat is what they grow.”

But Girdner, traveling with a group of U of M students, was able to provide a sort of Johnny-on-the-spot type of service to the inhabitants: the U of M group had traveled high into the Andes Mountains to work on an ongoing research project that is designed to eventually install a clean drinking water and irrigation system to the small village, comprised of about 30 poor, indigenous families.

“The kids drink from the irrigation ditch,” she says, “and none of the water is filtered. They have no system that ensures clean drinking water.”

Girdner adds that the water system the U of M students will eventually implement will result in other benefits as well.

U of M civil engineering master’s candidate Sarah Girdner researches potable water alternatives while on a research-based trip to the Bolivian village of Yarvicoya, located high in the Andes Mountains. The villages’ residents are poor and without clean water options.
U of M civil engineering master’s candidate Sarah Girdner researches potable water alternatives while on a research-based trip to the Bolivian village of Yarvicoya, located high in the Andes Mountains. The villages’ residents are poor and without clean water options.

“If we can supply more irrigation water to them, they can bring in more income, which will increase their quality of life,” she says.

The students and faculty adviser David Arellano, as part of the U of M chapter of Engineers Without Borders, are working with the community of Yarvicoya to first research, and then build a sustainable water source for personal needs and irrigation of crops. The group will return next summer to begin implementation of the plans.

“The village currently gets most of its water from a river that is three miles away,” says Engineers Without Borders chapter president Sam Jordan, a sophomore U of M civil engineering student. “It is a lot like the Mississippi River and is somewhat filthy. They get their drinking water from the river and this is what they use to irrigate their crops with, too.”

The village is in an isolated, desert-like region at an altitude of 13,000 feet. The residents are made up of Quechuas: indigenous ethnic families known for their colorful traditional costumes that can include a bowler style hat and hand-woven ponchos. Many in the village make less than $100 per year and rely on farming as their only source of food.

Arellano said the first trip looked at potential water sources, tested the water and assessed any health issues. He said the group is now making plans to return with design options that would enable the entire area to have access to the water they need.

“They have a few spigots, but nothing indoors,” Arellano says. “The system they now have breaks down often and it only serves a part of the community.”

The associate professor of civil engineering says the biggest challenge won’t necessarily be installing a sustainable water system, but gaining the confidence of the people.

“If the community is not involved and doesn’t buy into the project, it will be abandoned,” Arellano says. “It is important for the community to be involved in order for it to be successful.”

Afnan Agramont, the group’s South American adviser, adds, “The engineering that is required in most of the projects is easy; it is the social aspect — relating to the community and gaining their trust that is the hard part.”

The group’s research project is also interdisciplinary: Staci Somerville, a master’s student in public health, accompanied the group to conduct a health assessment.

“I found the river (where they get their water) to be fairly contaminated,” Somerville says. “The water was not clean. I don’t think the residents understand the water can be better.”

Civil engineering student Nicholas Street says he was struck by how poor the region is.

“It was difficult having so many kids come up saying, ‘Are you going to help us?’ It was hard to soak that in,” Street says. “They are very welcoming, though. We hope to expand their agriculture and also distribute clean water to their homes.”

Jordan says the group remains in a fundraising mode and plans to begin implementation of the project next summer.

“We cover most of the cost of the materials and labor — we do the work pro bono,” says Jordan.

Those wishing to donate can visit either https://sites.google.com/site/uofmewb/ or https://www.memphis.edu/development/give.php/ssl.charityweb.net/ewb.

Girdner says the U of M chapter of EWB is an opportunity for U of M students to make a difference in the world and is right at their fingertips.

“I considered the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations,” she says. “But we have something within the engineering school at the U of M where you can get hands-on-experience.”

The U of M chapter was officially recognized in spring of 2011 as the result of efforts by Girdner. EWB-USA was founded in 2002 by University of Colorado-Boulder civil engineering professor Dr. Bernard Amadei who sought to address some of the most prevalent challenges facing the developing world, including water purification and delivery, sanitation, transportation and infrastructure projects and sustainable and renewable energy systems. EWB-USA is comprised of an expansive network of more than 12,000 members and more than 225 university student and professional chapters engaged in 400 active programs in 45 countries around the world.

For more information, contact Arellano at darellan@memphis.edu.

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