Rural village gets water infrastructure upgrade
Bbanda is a small rural village of about 1100 people in southern central Uganda, located 45 minutes from the closest town of Mityana. There is no electricity or reliable source of drinking water. But thanks to the work of some engineering students, that is about to change.
Since 2009, volunteer members of the Northeastern University Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA NEU) have been working on providing a village-wide water system for the community of Bbanda. The need for clean water in many developing countries, especially in Africa, is nothing new. Residents of Bbanda, many of them children, may walk two miles round-trip every day to fetch water that is often unsanitary. Because the children are often the ones fetching this water, they spend time walking to the spring instead of in the classroom.
In 2009, most water sources in Bbanda were open springs located throughout the village. These springs were often shared with animals, served as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and almost always tested positive for E. coli. At the time there were two borehole wells, one at the school and one at the clinic. Two additional boreholes were drilled after 2009 as a temporary solution. When the boreholes work, they work well, but they break a lot. The need for a water delivery system is plain to see.
The project’s goal is to establish twelve community tap stands dispersed throughout the village. Once these twelve tap stands are in place, almost every house will be within 400 m of fresh water, shortening the present commute by as much as 2 km for some residents. A generator-driven pump will draw water from a well drilled by the EWB-USA NEU to a storage tank on a hill. Gravity will carry water from the storage tank down to the tap stands across the village.
Under the guidance of retired engineer Timothy McGrath, members of the EWB-USA NEU Chapter have made eleven trips to Uganda. In the early trips, the need for quality water was so dire that temporary relief projects were established. Along with the two boreholes, the team installed and rehabilitated several rainwater-harvesting systems at the schools.
In the first stages of the master project, the team geo-located prominent structures in the town using a Trimble GeoXT 3000 series handheld receiver. The data was processed using Trimble Pathfinder software. The newly-formed town map included the school, religious buildings, houses, as well as existing wells and springs. As the project progressed, the new pipelines – including enclosures and manholes – were geo-located to make an as-built plan of the new water system.
Alex Piers, electrical engineering and physics student, has been program director of Northeastern’s EWB-USA Chapter since 2014. He states that the group is close to commissioning phase one. EWB-USA NEU has already drilled and coordinated construction on the storage tank, as well as five tap stands. Commissioning phase one will activate these five community tap stands.
Phase two will add seven tap stands at the outskirts of the village. Throughout the second stage of the project, the team will geo-locate the new pipeline and tap stands using the GeoXT receiver and add these features to their existing map.
The group has a local supplier for the pump and generator; they are now waiting for funds, which will come from a variety of sources such as grants from the university, personal donations, corporate sponsors, and their partner NGO. Working with local suppliers means that money paid for parts and labour will stay in Uganda. This also ensures that a local mechanic will be familiar with these machines and able to make necessary repairs should the pump or generator fail. It will only take a few days for installation and testing before the system can be activated. The team basically just needs to buy a pump and generator and install them, then they can get safe water to the people.
EWB-USA NEU has seen a tremendous amount of community input and involvement since the project began in 2009. Most of the water pipeline has been trenched and laid by the villagers themselves. What has been lacking in this community, as with most EWB-USA project areas, are the engineering skills to develop a system and see it to completion. Since its incorporation in 2002, EWB-USA has been connecting engineering students with developing countries in order to find solutions to their infrastructure needs. Often times the need is clean drinking water. The Northeastern University Chapter, located in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of several across the country. It consists mostly of civil engineers but its student members represent many of the school’s disciplines.
Responsibility for maintaining the system will eventually fall to the community’s water board, a group of 17 members from different facets of the Ugandan community. However, in the year following the system’s activation, EWB-USA NEU will return to test and monitor the water quality. This will ensure a smooth and successful transfer of ownership and responsibility. Sustainability is one of EWB-USA NEU’s top priorities.
Piers said that community involvement with the project has been a huge part of its success. Community members have been working right along with the engineers, performing much of the labour work, especially when the EWB-USA NEU team is gone. Piers noted that it is obvious that the residents value the system and want to keep it up and running. They see the new system as a major improvement to their quality of life.