Student engineers' project expands access to clean water in Kenyan village

In 2012, Swahili lecturer Mahiri Mwita approached Princeton University's chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) with the idea of starting a project in the Kuria District of Kenya where he grew up. Three years later, a team of Princeton engineering students has helped design and build an award-winning rainwater catchment system there to provide clean, reliable water, and the group plans to build another system this summer.

"After we finished our project and tested it, we had a small — it wasn't really small, it was a good three hours — meeting with the entire community," said sophomore Devansh Gupta, an electrical engineering major. "We gave them a tour of the entire project. … They were really appreciative of it."

Engineers Without Borders partners with communities in developing countries around the world and works on sustainable engineering solutions to meet local needs. The chapter, encouraged by Mwita's enthusiasm, decided to form a team to pursue a new project in Kenya.

The team began by conducting research to get a better understanding of the region and speaking to nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, working in the area. In August 2013, a small group of students and a professional mentor traveled to Kuria and visited many villages in order to select one with which to partner. The team spoke to residents, government officials and NGOs about the problems the area faced as well as possible engineering solutions EWB-Princeton could help implement to mitigate these challenges.

The students and mentor determined that the main concern in the region was lack of access to a clean and reliable source of water. The team decided to begin a five-year partnership with Muchebe, a village of about 2,000 people that showed the most interest in working with EWB on the project.

Students in Engineering Without Borders-Princeton worked with a community in Kenya to design and build a rainwater catchment system, giving the village a source of clean, reliable water. Watch an extended video about the project on YouTube. (Video by Jessica Luo, Class of 2015)

The first project of the partnership between EWB-Princeton and Muchebe was improving the rainwater catchment system at Muchebe Primary School. The school's system was limited in its size and scope. Gutters collected water from less than 25 percent of the school's roof area and the storage capacity of the tanks was only 20,000 liters.

"The storage capacity does not last them through the whole dry season, so children still have to walk to nearby rivers to fetch water," explained junior Sofia Suarez, a chemical and biological engineeringmajor. The water from these rivers was often contaminated, causing waterborne illnesses if drunk untreated.

The team's goal was to maximize storage capacity by installing gutters all along the school's roof perimeter and adding storage tanks, and also to educate the community about waterborne illnesses and water treatment methods.

During the following school year, the team worked to design the rainwater catchment system and made another trip to Muchebe to collect technical data such as water samples and measurements of the school and to conduct surveys with community members.

Sophomore Cecilia Stoner, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major, reflected on the results of her surveying: "Most of the women said it took roughly an hour to go down to the rivers and collect the water. Many women said the Rebohocha [River] had the cleanest water in the area, but meanwhile the path to go down there was very rough. We also asked them about how they felt the project we were doing here at the school and whether they thought they would benefit. And everyone said that they thought there would be some benefit either to the community or to themselves with the project."

In August 2014, the team returned to Muchebe to implement the rainwater catchment system. The team's design utilized underground piping to consolidate collected rainwater in a common cluster of tanks, a technique not commonly used in the area. This combination of EWB-Princeton's engineering expertise with locally available materials created a new solution for Muchebe's water challenges.

By the end of the trip, EWB-Princeton had successfully increased storage capacity by 47,500 liters. The team met with the community and created educational materials on proper water treatment and sanitation methods to cut down waterborne illnesses. The team also trained community members on how to operate and maintain the new system and created manuals on how to care for it in years to come.

Throughout the project, the EWB-Princeton team worked to ensure the involvement of the community. The school asked parents of the school children to contribute 200 Kenyan Shillings (about $2.30) to the project and many also donated tools and materials for construction.

"The lack of clean water one of the biggest problems facing communities in this region," said Mwita, a lecturer in the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. "The EWB-Princeton project in Muchebe has gone a long way in designing, building and engaging the community on a sustainable project that goes a long way in providing them with a sustainable clean water project that uses local natural and human resources."

In February, EWB-Princeton's Kenya project was selected among hundreds of EWB-USA projects as one of three winners of the 2015 EWB-USA Premier Project Award, which recognizes excellence in EWB-USA projects that "deliver high quality, sustainable solutions to help meet the basic needs of our partnering communities."

The team traveled to Muchebe in January to assess their second project, which will be to build another rainwater catchment system at a storage shed near the school. They plan to return to Muchebe in August.

For Gupta, the best part of the experience has been meeting the people in Muchebe: "The project has been really interesting, all the engineering aspects of it, but I felt it was really amazing how kind and welcoming the people were, how literally every single person wanted to take us back to their house and make us eat something. I think that was really fantastic."