February 25, 2010

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By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — "Engineers identify what's needed technically but they listen to the users." Last month, four Bucknell University civil and environmental engineering students traveled to Tumaipa, a village in Suriname, South America, to put that design principle to work. || View larger slideshow.

Tumaipa is a village of about 300 residents and one Peace Corps volunteer — Laura Roberts, a 2007 mechanical engineering graduate of Bucknell. "Laura approached the engineering faculty to see if there was interest in designing a water supply and distribution system for this village," said Kevin Gilmore, visiting assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Bucknell.

During the fall semester, the four senior students — Alesandra Agresti, Jon Campbell-Copp, Scott Teagarden and John Trimmer — completed a feasibility study for the water project, considering not only the technical engineering aspects but also the social, political and economic aspects that affect long-term sustainability of the project, Gilmore said.

Roberts visited Bucknell in September to meet with the team about the project. After returning to Suriname, she participated in several phone calls with the team and sent photos and other information as background for the project. Using this information, the students evaluated several alternatives and recommended their best solution for supplying clean water.

"But they proposed they could learn only so much without traveling there to study the society, its culture, and the technical aspects - different water sources, the layout of the village, how we would get water from one place to another, what kind of treatment would be required," Gilmore said.

The students, along with Gilmore and Mike Toole, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, spent a week in Tumaipa during winter break in January, doing hands-on research and interacting with the villagers, descendants of slaves who escaped from the Dutch beginning in the 17th century.

'Have you been to the river?'
One of the key cultural aspects the team observed was the importance of cleanliness to the villagers who go to the river twice a day not only to bathe and wash clothes and dishes but for the social experience.

"If we provide a running water system that will bring water to communal sinks throughout the village, some residents may not come to the river as often, which would take away that social element," said Gilmore.

Toole explained that concrete wash stations have been set up in other villages in the region. "This worked well because the wash stations have become communal areas in and of themselves. However, even the design of the sinks required input from the villagers who have a certain process for washing clothes. You don't want to lose the whole social thing; you also don't want offend them by having something that doesn't fit with their existing processes," he said.

Ample water supply
Tumaipa has three main sources of water: rainwater, which is collected in Durotanks (large plastic tanks ranging in size from 250 to 400 gallons) as it runs off of metal roofs, two small spring-fed creeks and the Upper Suriname River. "The creeks are fairly clean but a system to filter river water would be necessary. A pump would be needed to send water to the highest spot in the village. Then they'd need to clean it via sand filtration," said Toole.

"The students determined that collecting rain water should be sufficient for the village's drinking water needs during periods when rainfall is adequate," said Gilmore. If the rainfall is less than average, they would need to revert to the creek/river water that has been filtered. Also, when other water demands are added in, such as washing hands, clothes and dishes, rainfall is insufficient and one of the other sources is required.

International stakeholders and future plans
While in Suriname, the students met with representatives from UNICEF who asked for their help to determine if an existing water supply and treatment system devised for another village is a good design for the whole region.

"The key takeaway was, maybe this model in a nearby village is not the best way, that the low-tech solution, like the Durotanks collecting rainwater, might be a better, more sustainable solution to providing water," Toole said. "There's a chance for this team not only to design and meet Tumaipa's needs but to do some groundwork that helps all the interior Suriname villages."

The students also met with and presented their findings to other political and NGO (nongovernment organization) representatives, including UNICEF, people from the Peace Corps administration, the Pan American Health Organization, which is part of the World Health Organization, the Suriname Ministry for Regional Development, Rotary International, and Surinamese Water.

As for a return trip to implement their design, the students have applied for a grant from the Davis Foundation 100 Projects for Peace program. The program, which funds grassroots projects that can be implemented during one summer, will announce recipients later this spring.

Student perspectives
In planning their trip to Tumaipa in January, each of the students was eager to apply their civil engineering expertise to a real-world situation. They also were interested in learning first-hand about another culture.

Teagarden and Campbell-Copp were moved by a funeral service held during their first night in the village. "Part of the funeral rituals is this night when the whole community stays up all night dancing to music and celebrating the lives of those who had died," said Teagarden. "My biggest fear going into this experience was that we would do something culturally insensitive or offensive that would insult the members of the community. When the community members invited us to come and watch the ritual ceremonies and invited us to be part of the dancing, I was thrilled. So there we were, learning how to dance like Saramaccans with complete strangers — who we couldn't even communicate with — under the most amazing star-filled sky I have ever seen in my life."

Campbell-Copp remembered an announcement from a village boy that affected him. "On our last day, we had woken up early to do some final surveying work through the village. One of the boys that I had been playing soccer with for the past few days called after me as I was walking along and told me in English that he was going to school. Not everyone gets to go to school in the village, and he was so excited that he was going. It was a short moment, but the experience stands out to me as an example of the simplicity of village life," Campbell-Copp said.

"Along with these experiences, it was interesting to see the contrast between poverty in the city and poverty in the rural areas of the Interior," he added. "This was my first time to a developing country, and I was amazed at the general buoyancy and happiness that existed in the village despite all that they lack in comparison to the developed world."

Agresti called the trip "one of the best experiences of my life," especially the interaction with the villagers. "Even though we could not understand each other, we were able to interact and teach each other something. For example, when we were doing site surveying two little boys followed us and in the beginning were just watching us, but by the end they were mimicking what we were doing and running back and forth with the measuring tape and looking through the surveying equipment. Even though they did not know what we were doing, they wanted to interact with us and be a part of our project.

"Another amazing experience was having some of the village women come over to us when we were testing water samples. They were interested in what we were doing and Laura Roberts was able to translate and explain to them we were testing for bacteria in their water sources. By the end, they were looking at the petri dishes and observing all of the bacteria colonies that had formed," Agresti added.

"There is a big emphasis on gender roles in Tumaipa, and the washing of clothes and dishes along with cooking is performed by the women. The other women in the village spent a lot of time with me teaching me how to properly wash dishes and clothes, because they have very specific methods. They also showed me how to properly dress wearing the traditional Saramaccan wrap. They really welcomed us into our culture with open arms and wanted us to be 'true Saramaccans.'"

Trimmer said the visit to Suriname "was amazing, thrilling and definitely informative, but it was also challenging, filled with uncertainty and maybe even a little frustrating. Though we were all working towards the same goal, there were times when our thoughts didn't quite match up with the ideas of other groups working on this problem, and there were also issues where the opinions of some of the villagers did not agree with ours.

"This process is not as easy as it seems," Trimmer added. "We need to take social considerations into account with every decision we make at each step of the process. This is much more complicated than simply finding a water source and figuring out how to clean it and bring it to the people. Rather than becoming discouraged or unmotivated, we've come back with a renewed passion to do the best possible job that we can. The trip gave us exactly what we needed.

"It showed us the difficult issues that we'll need to consider, beyond the project's solely technical aspects, and it allowed us to better understand why this project needs to happen," he said. "The villagers of Tumaipa have the same right to life and health that we have, but we have clean water and they do not. I hope that we can help the villagers meet their needs, just like they met our needs when we were there."

Contact: Division of Communications


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