Logo: University of Southern California

Engineers Without Borders Project Nears Milestone

Viterbi group's first project -- a new water system for two towns in Honduras -- could break ground this spring
Claudia Melendez
January 26, 2009 —

It's taken over two years of planning, designing and mathematical calculations, but the undergraduate group Engineers Without Borders at the Viterbi School of Engineering is about to cross a milestone: the water system they proposed for two Honduran villages could break ground in the spring.

First though, the student-run organization needs to raise at least another $10,000 of the $60,000 total needed for the project, and Engineers without Borders National needs to approve their plans first.  Most of the USC chapter's funding so far has come from rotary clubs and a grant from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Liana Ching, left, and Jackie Reed spent lots of time in between classes brainstorming about the new water system.  Claudia Melendez photo. 

So the week before Thanksgiving – and two weeks before finals – students Liana Ching and Jackie Reed hunkered down and put the finishing touches on the plans.

“We had a lot of calculations and designs figured out, but we still needed to do a lot,” said Ching, a junior majoring in chemical engineering and the project manager. “We had to plan the implementation that week. “

“We had to make sure the supplies will be available there,” added Jackie Reed, a senior majoring in civil engineering and president of the school chapter of Engineers without Borders.

La Estanzuela, a village about two hours north of Tegucipalpa, the country’s capital, is home to nearly 300 people with no access to running water. Their water source, a nearby river, is contaminated and young children make a long trek carrying big buckets to deliver their household's supply of the vital liquid.

“The water tested positive for coliform bacteria, so we made it our goal to come up with a PVC distribution site and a storage tank,” Ching said.

While visiting La Estanzuela in the spring, the engineering group realized there was a second village with similar challenges: they have the same water source but no distribution system. A solution for both towns soon emerged: by installing a water system upstream – away from the pollution – La Estanzuela and Corral de Piedra could get the clean water its residents needed.  Each community will have a 10,000-gallon storage tank with a chlorination system through tablets commonly found in Honduras.

Coming up with a system that would work in a developing country, in a remote village with no electricity and few services, was no small feat, said Mansour Rahimi, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering and the advisor for the group.

EWB Surveying 1
Allie Anderson and Lucy Hoag take water samples during first Engineering Without Borders trip to Honduras last summer.

“It was not because of design complexity, but because of such a low technology system,” Rahimi said. “If this was an advanced, cutting-edge pump, it might have been easier for the students to get the data.”

Instead, the students had to design a self-sustaining dam and water pump that uses paddles to carry the precious liquid to a tank before it gets distributed by pipes to the villages.

“The students had to learn from scratch,” Rahimi said. “There is no software, no tables or books on this.”

But engineering the design has been only one of the challenges. Another big one has been fundraising. Students are not used to it, Rahimi said, and the cultural aspects of dealing with another country.

“The project involves so much more than just designing and installing a pump system,” commented Dana Sherman, a senior lecturer with a joint appointment in the Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.  Another aspect is “developing trust and implementing a system that does not require consistent or difficult maintenance that the villagers can utilize.”

A dedication to service was instilled in Ching, who frequently participated in community oriented events organized by her high school. She joined Engineers without Borders because she wanted to see a project from beginning to end and witness firsthand its impact in the community.

She’s been amazed by La Estanzuela’s simple lifestyle, the strength of their community and their willingness to help one another.

“It’s heart-wrenching for somebody to tell you ‘we know (the water) is not clean, but we have no alternative,'” Liang said.

As an lifeguard at Laguna Beach, Reed experienced more than her fair share of beach closures due to contamination, and that’s what made her decide to pursue a career dealing with water resources. At La Estanzuela, she wants to make sure not only that clean drinking water flows, but that the community has other resources.

“The government came and made promises but nothing ever came through,” she said. “All (the villagers) have to rely on is coffee farming and not a formal system of education, but they are all literate.”

The waterfall in La Estanzuela, Honduras.

The students plan to monitor their project for three to five years, along with the health of the villagers. Also, they want to introduce other improvements, such as latrines and perhaps a school.

Rahimi has been impressed with the level of energy and commitment the students have shown in completing this project, and describes their effort as one of the best things he’s seen in his entire teaching career.

“If it wasn’t for their level of energy, this would have not happened,” he said. “This has been the most exciting (project) of my career. I’ve never seen students so dedicated to a project.”

Engineers without Borders at Viterbi has been asked to take on more projects, but they would like to see the water system at La Estanzuela completed first. 

“We would like to have one project in each continent,” Rahimi said. “We would like to see Engineers without Borders institutionalized into the fabric of the Viterbi student experience.”

--Claudia Melendez