Building a better world, one project at a time
On Thursday nights a handful of engineering students meet in a lab in the basement of O’Brien Hall. The team, hailing from different departments, is led by Ramya Prathuri, a second-year bioengineering student. She coordinates research and assigns jobs like stopping by the machine shop to check on a bucket-drilling project, or finding a contact in the chemistry department to run some tests.
Their task is to build a simple filter out of readily available materials. If all goes according to plan, the low-tech device will make water safe to drink. This isn’t just a class assignment or a theoretical design challenge, but part of a long-term, real-world project undertaken by UC Berkeley’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
In southern Peru, two communities are waiting to hear the results of these Thursday night sessions in hopes that their water will become less toxic. As it stands now, the arsenic level in some of the wells around the towns of Huatta and Carancas is as much as 50 times greater than the safe threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Peruvian law. Chronic ingestion of arsenic can cause an array of health problems including cancers, vascular disease and reproductive disorders.
Naturally occurring arsenic in groundwater is not uncommon. With the right technology, it is a problem that can be remedied. That’s where Engineers Without Borders (EWB) comes in. EWB is an international organization that matches the need for basic infrastructure, water and sanitation projects in the developing world with engineers from more developed countries. Many of the chapters are on college campuses, like the group at Berkeley.
The university’s EWB chapter started a few years ago, when Dominic Molinari took an interest as a freshman. Molinari, a Napa native, is gregarious, fun-loving and rides a longboard to class. He’s also persistent, and spent most of his college career filing paperwork and developing support for the fledgling group. The work paid off; the Peru project is the group’s first international assignment. Now a new grad, Molinari says, “When I started it I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I knew that the idea behind EWB was great, and that it could have a huge impact on the Berkeley campus.” Not to mention the communities the group works with.
Engineering in a social context
Engineers Without Borders-USA was founded in 2002 by Berkeley alumnus Bernard Amadei. After receiving his Ph.D. in civil engineering in 1982, Amadei went on to become a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in geotechnical engineering.
In 2000, Amadei was invited to travel to a Mayan village in Belize. There he remembers seeing “little girls who couldn’t go to school because they had to carry water to their village from a nearby river.” His hosts found out he was a civil engineer and asked him to help build a water pump. Looking back, he says, “It was the first time as an engineer that I was asked to solve a problem from a social point of view. Usually engineering problems are solved in engineering terms, but this problem was put in social context—little girls unable to go to school because they have to carry water.”
A year later Amadei returned to the village with a group of his students on what he thought was a one-time experiential learning trip. But the students wanted to continue with the project. “I had no interest whatsoever in forming an organization,” he says, “but the students forced my hand.”
And so Engineers Without Borders-USA was born. Today, the organization has 12,000 members and is working on more than 350 projects in 45 developing countries. Underpinning their rapid growth is the persistent need. “There is a huge demand from students to learn this kind of engineering and huge demand from people who need assistance,” Amadei says.
“This is the right time and place for students interested in this kind of work,” he continues. “Before, engineers were perceived as nerdy or just interested in cranking out numbers, but now they are out there solving real-world problems. The time for boring engineering is over.”
By spring 2009, a couple of Berkeley engineering seniors had heard about EWB-USA and decided they wanted to start a chapter. Being so close to graduation, they needed to find a younger student to continue the process. One of them knew Molinari and decided to bring him onto the team as a potential leader.
While the young engineers were organizing in Berkeley, a public health crisis was mysteriously unfolding in the Peruvian Altiplano, near the Bolivian border. The Altiplano is a dry, cool, high plateau around Lake Titicaca in the central Andes. The main economy is livestock grazing and farming. Strange illnesses were first reported there in late 2007, when a meteorite crashed near Carancas. Before long, local health officials were busy investigating claims that dust kicked up by the meteorite was making nearby residents sick. A round of blood and urine samples revealed abnormally high levels of arsenic. But the contamination wasn’t matching up with where the meteorite landed. Something else was causing the problem.
By late 2008, a Peru-based nonprofit conservation organization—called Suma Marka, or “beautiful place” in the local Aymara dialect—got involved and cast a wider sampling net. The results of their study indicated underground aquifer contamination. The detective work continued when Suma Marka enlisted the help of another aid agency, the Chijnaya Foundation, to find out what exactly was in the region’s water.
It turns out that arsenic is leaching out of the bedrock and contaminating the groundwater around Carancas and Huatta. Tests of the region’s water show naturally occurring arsenic levels running as high as 500 parts per billion at some wells. The safe range for drinking water set by Peruvian law is 10 parts per billion. Some of the initial testing indicates that some of the arsenic is in the trivalent form, which is much more toxic and difficult to remove.
Shortly after the problem was identified, the Chijnaya Foundation contacted EWB-USA to ask for help developing a solution, and the newly minted Berkeley chapter jumped at the chance to get involved. Between the resources available through faculty on campus and the Berkeley Arsenic Alleviation Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory nearby, the students thought they were well-positioned to handle the challenges of the groundwater contamination.
Taking the lead
Once the group signed on, a transfer student named Jared Dozal stepped up to be the project lead. On first meeting, Dozal seems more stoic than the average college student, which is likely because he is in his mid-thirties. “I took quite a bit of time off from school,” he says. “I didn’t really have the opportunities or the funding; I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” He worked as a custom tile setter for a while, but when the housing market crashed and the work dried up, Dozal’s now-fiancée encouraged him to go back to school. He started at a community college in southern California and then transferred to Berkeley. “I knew I wanted to do some type of environmental work, and I was excelling at math and physics, so I went into engineering.”
He was also awarded a spot as a Miller Scholar—a program for promising low-income transfer students who are the first in their family to go to college. Community service is a program requirement, so when Dozal learned about EWB from Molinari at an orientation in 2010—they are both environmental engineering science majors—he was interested. “When they adopted the Peru project, that’s when I threw myself out there. I let them know that I was already planning on investing a lot of time and effort into the project. My grandmother was born in Peru—she’s from Lima—so that also spurred my interest.”
The source of clean water
By June 2011, the students pulled together a shoestring budget — fundraising for the project continues to be a challenge — and sent a team of six, along with a National Park Service civil engineer as a professional mentor, to scope out the extent of the contamination in Huatta.
The blog the group keeps about their experiences reads like a college-trip travelogue peppered with technical detail. While taking in the sights, sounds and cuisine of another country, the Berkeley engineers also have to negotiate for transport to visit rural sites, figure out what filter supplies are available locally and organize meetings with health officials and political leaders. Besides engineering, they are learning about the complexities of international development work.
“We went to Huatta to identify community priorities,” says Dozal. “Since arsenic is tasteless and odorless they don’t really know it is there. Their main concern was the hardness of the water. It was unpalatable, almost undrinkable in certain situations.” To find the best possible solution to the expanding problem, the group got back to campus and added water softening and hydrogeology research teams to their task list.
On their second trip, in January 2012, with a larger travel team, the group fanned out further. Half went back to Huatta to test their water softening techniques, while the other half went to Carancas, to continue to build relationships and complete another round of water sampling.
The most recent samples, brightly labeled and sitting in small bottles on a shelf in O’Brien Hall, are the ones that Ramya Prathuri and the arsenic removal team are preparing to test. Now, after two assessment trips, they have an idea of the complexity of the problem. The solution needs to soften water, remove arsenic, filter biological contaminants, scale easily and be made from locally available materials.
Besides a technical fix, teaching is also a big part of the project. For the first two trips, the education team created coloring books explaining the necessity of filtering local water. In the future they plan on making materials about proper water storage hygiene and sanitation as well as developing a curriculum for training and certifying technicians who can maintain the filters after EWB leaves. The group will also turn over all of their water data to local health workers. The goal is to not just build something temporarily useful, but to also make sure the community has the tools to create lasting change.
There’s a lot left to do, but then again, it wasn’t that long ago when Molinari wondered, “How can I take what I am learning as an engineer and actually use it in the world, make a difference and do something cool?”