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Bucknell Engineers Improve Life in El Porvenir

by Alexandra Madsen

Residents of the community of El Porvenir take a two-mile tractor ride down the lush mountain of coffee plants, small houses and smiling people every day during the dry season.

The road is not paved, and the six-month dry season leaves ample dust to be flung. Once the men reach the bottom of the mountain they go to a well, fill their barrels with as much water as they can and head back up the steep dirt path to their community.

The trip is slow and bumpy, but the people of El Porvenir depend on it. Without these trips, the citizens would not get the mere two gallons of water per person a day they currently receive during the dry season for cleaning, drinking, cooking, and bathing.

Several Bucknell engineering seniors last spring decided to put their senior design projects and their skills together to create a plan to help this isolated mountain community. It was a natural choice because of close ties established by the Bucknell Brigade which has been sending week-long delegations to Nicaragua twice a year since 1999. The Brigades are based with the non-governmental organization, the Center for Development in Central American (CDCA) near Nueva Vida (a community outside Managua) and spend time helping in the community medical clinic, aiding in new construction, learning about peoples' efforts to improve their own lives, and, as a part of this, visiting El Porvenir.

Talking with past Brigade participants and the people at CDCA, Bucknell's engineering students soon learned that the most pressing need of the El Porvenir community was access to water. So, a water pump project was launched. Professors Mike Toole and Charles Kim traveled to Nicaragua last October to investigate the area where the two mile pipeline was to be installed to carry the water from a well to the community.

Improving the quality of life

According to Dr. Charles Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, "The goal of this project is to improve the quality of life of the residents of El Porvenir by safely and reliably delivering water during the six month dry season. We hope to deliver larger volumes of water (about 25 gallons/person/day) at a fraction of the cost and without the use of the tractor."

Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Mike Toole explains that "a second, perhaps less immediate, goal of the project is to provide the community with electricity." The community currently has no electrical power or lighting except for two florescent lights in the school building that are powered by a solar panel.

"Consequently, the length of workdays are limited by sunlight," Toole explained, "and residents cook using wood stoves." Supplying the community with electricity would allow individual houses and common areas to be lit for safety and productivity, and he said, "allow the community to better connect with the outer world as they desire. Electricity and increased water supply would also allow the community to expand their economic base beyond coffee."

An important part of the professors' visit last year was meeting with residents of El Porvenir and representatives from the CDCA to discuss the community's needs. These candid discussions were important for ensuring that the design would reflect the priorities of the community itself, both in terms of engineering assumptions and social impacts. "The process made us all think hard about designing appropriate technology for the El Porvenir situation," said Toole.

During the spring of 2007, four mechanical engineering students and one civil and environmental engineering student completed the design of the pump, pump house and pipeline system to run water from an existing well to the El Porvenir community. Four of these students traveled to El Porvenir as members of the Bucknell Brigades in January and March in order to gather information first hand, including critical information about the terrain and community. In May, they received the good news that a special program called the 100 Projects for Peace had awarded them $10,000 to begin implementation of their design.

Working in El Porvenir

In June a delegation of five students and one laboratory manager headed to El Porvenir to begin the work. They slept in hammocks, bathed in a barrel, were challenged by an outhouse that had a different scorpion in it each day, and ate essentially only rice, beans and fresh fruit for every meal. After twenty days of hard work, the water pump, motor and a masonry pump house to protect the machinery were all installed.

"We hear about third world poverty, but I was able to see the struggles this country's people had to endure," said George Waltman, lab director at Bucknell. "It made me more determined to finish the pump house project no matter what. I could see that determination in the rest of our team as well."

This first construction trip was a huge success. Ashley Curry, a Bucknell senior who served as the translator on the delegation, remarks that the greatest reward of the trip was being "given the opportunity to interact with locals in Nicaragua and see how they live every day."

"We got to share the experience with them, we were working and eating with them side by side," she said. All the hard work did not come without challenges; Curry explained how difficult it was to get basic needs. "You don’t realize how valuable electricity and transportation is. It took us three hours to go 20 kilometers." She also said students grappled with the lack of resources and comfort. Rob Gradoville, one of the chief senior engineering students on the delegation said, "In the Nicaraguan humid heat you just could not work as fast as you would like. It was typical that I would finish two liters of water before 11 am just because of the heat and hard work."

A great start

While the June trip was a great start, much remains to be done. To deliver water to the community, a pipeline must be installed from the pump house up the mountain to the community and the new pump must be powered either from an extension to the existing electrical grid or a local device such as a diesel-fuel generator, perhaps in combination with solar photovoltaics. To deliver electricity to the community, an underground cable or an overhead cable system must be run up the mountain.

The next step for students may be to help install the water piping once it is purchased. Once the dry season hits, the hope is to get the community of El Porvenir involved in laying the pipeline, both so they will get a sense of ownership and also so they will understand how to fix it should it need repairs at some point. More important though is finding the funds to complete the work. "We are focusing now on fundraising, with the idea that additional students can participate in installation sometime in 2008," said Toole.

A bright future

The future looks bright for the continuation of the water pump project in El Porvenir and other new projects. Kim is optimistic, saying, "Hopefully, we'll be able to complete the water project soon (in the next year or so). After this, I hope the door opens up to more health, safety, and infrastructure related projects."

Toole agrees and hopes this project will inspire more of the same in lesser developed countries. "Projects like these match well with the plan for Bucknell's emphasis on giving students opportunities to deepen their learning by working and studying off campus, especially through international service learning projects," he said.

Three of the students will clearly be building on their experiences with this project during the next stage of their life. Rob Gradoville and Laura Roberts, both mechanical engineering students, have been accepted into the Peace Corps. Meghan Feller, a civil engineering student, began a graduate program at Villanova this fall that she hopes will allow her to increase her knowledge in sustainable and context-sensitive water resources design.

Gradoville, now working in the Dominican Republic said, "I did exactly what I wanted to do in my last year at school, applied for a grant, got it, came to Nicaragua, built the house, and returned back to the U.S. having done what I only dreamed of doing last September when I signed on to the project. It's all pretty amazing to me. It was something I will not forget."


Alexandra Madsen is a senior majoring in religion at Bucknell, where she is serving as a Brigade intern. Madsen, who traveled to Nicaragua as a member of the Bucknell Brigade in 2005, will return to Nueva Vida with the spring volunteer trip.

[photos by Bucknell junior Ryo Sueda ]


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