Students Pitch in to Bring Water to Honduras Area

While most college students spent their summer vacation lounging on a sun-drenched beach or hanging out by the pool, a group of Georgia Tech engineering students walked the sweltering streets of a community in Honduras in search of a good path for a water pipeline.

Though it might not have been a relaxing week, the students realized that even the basic engineering skills they had learned in their studies so far could help transform a community in a developing country.

"I learned more in a few days than I could have learned in a year of school," said Laura Premenko, an undergraduate student majoring in both civil engineering and architecture. "We saw the conditions, saw how everything works, and we measured and dug holes. We tangibly figured out what needed to be done."

The students were all members of the Georgia Tech chapter of Engineering Students Without Borders (ESWB), a national student organization that encourages students to lend their engineering know-how to communities in developing countries. The group included Michael Saunders, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, four undergraduate students and one graduate student.

Residents in the area, in a community near La Lima called Colonia Los Angeles, had appealed to the national organization of ESWB for help with its very basic and possibly contaminated water system. The area had annexed itself from the main city, electing to handle its own utilities due to the difficult expense of obtaining services from the city. To save money, the community installed and now maintains its own water system, complete with an elevated water tower, submerged pump in an available well and a PVC-pipe distribution system.

The project goal was to bring much cleaner water to 185 homes (with about 1,200 residents) in the community. When the Georgia Tech group arrived, the community asked them to help with three primary objectives - checking its pump, fixing the power and improving the distribution system. It was also using a very old and inadequate water tower that made improvement difficult, Saunders said.

With the current water system, the community can afford to provide itself with water five hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. When water is unavailable, residents store water in their pila (multi-purpose basins) or buckets. Without these waters, they would have to go down to a nearby river. But the river is dangerously contaminated with untreated wastewater from the community, which is dumped directly into the river from the sewer.

This became one of the group's top priorities.

"The sewage goes right into the creek that runs alongside the town," Premenko said. "When they don't have water, they go to the creek. We would even see kids playing there and eating mangos - it was horrible."

While in Honduras, the students gathered as much data as possible, focusing on site assessment, pipe and distribution-system measurements, and extensive water-quality investigations of well water and water in the distribution system. And with friendly help from many of the community's children and adults, the ESWB students also managed to establish a map the entire area during their visit.

Once the total water project cost has been assessed based on the findings, the group can determine how much additional funding they will need to complete various aspects of the project. The system may need a new water tower, a completely new piping system, a disinfection approach for the water, a well capacity study and possibly a new pumping system. To implement as many improvements as possible, the students developed a fundraising package to help drum up extra funding from businesses and organizations.

"That's one of the things I liked most about this project," said Brenda Vargas, an undergraduate student of civil engineering and out-going president of the Georgia Tech chapter of ESWB. "It involves so many aspects of being an engineer. You're going out and helping someone, you're doing engineering, you're doing management, and you're finding a way to pay for it."

To complete their summer activities, students on the site assessment team made a technical presentation at the annual conference of the Georgia Association of Water Professionals in July. The team is seeking input and technical assistance and oversight from them and other professionals across the state, region and United States.

The next step of the project will be a feasibility assessment to determine the best way to solve the community's water problems. The group has tentative plan to return to La Lima later this year or early next year to focus on implementing solutions for the problems they found during the summer trip.

The trip was both a valuable learning experience for students and a way to open engineering students' eyes to how they can use their knowledge to improve lives, Saunders said, and students in institutions like Georgia Tech can be an important tool.

"These communities really need a bunch of 'talented techies' to solve their problems, and we've got plenty at Georgia Tech," Saunders said.

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