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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

VIDEO: Students Address a Small Town's Desperate Need for Clean Water

By Keith Pierce

While men who live in the small northern Guatemala town of La Reforma work in nearby factories, women and children spend most of their days carrying water from a containment tank to their homes. For some, this distance is more than a mile each way.

This prevents women from working outside the home and children - as young as 6 - from going to school regularly, adding to the community's cycle of poverty. To make matters worse, this shared and often recycled water is used for drinking, bathing, watering crops and doing laundry, posing serious health risks.

During spring break, while most students were relaxing at the beach or sleeping on grandma's couch, students from the Old Dominion University chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) were in Guatemala helping the roughly 800 residents of the community in desperate need of clean water.

"The women of the community are the ones having to go up and down a hill, three hours per day to get water," said business and finance major Hans Gottschalk who serves as ODU EWB treasurer. "And let me tell you, it's hard! I did it one day and I was sore. I can only imagine having to do it every single day."

Working in conjunction with Engineers Without Borders USA and Engineers Without Borders Hampton Roads professional chapter, the trip was designed to assess the feasibility of constructing a clean-water distribution system for this impoverished community.

"They currently have one elevated tank that they built on their own, and what we want to do is get a distribution system that takes the water from that elevated tank to each of the houses, with a filtration system to help keep the water clean," said engineering technology Professor Orlando Ayala. "EWB USA requires that the project be fully designed by students."

Split into two teams, the students had to determine if their skills matched the task that could last up to five years. A social team went door to door with a questionnaire to collect data, while an engineering team conducted water tests, surveyed land elevation and measured distances.

"This trip was my first real hands-on experience with an engineering project where, because there are a lot of unknown variables, we have a significant amount of control and freedom over the planning and its implementation," said Justine Marin, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering.

"We conducted a lot of tests on the water and as we expected, there was a lot of bacteria and E.coli," said Rita Meraz, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and vice president ODU's EWB chapter. "Some people were drinking this water even though they knew it wasn't very clean, but they had no choice."

Project design will take a year. The students will return to Guatemala in 2020 to begin implementing the plans, followed by three years of monitoring progress and maintenance.

Funding is a challenge for the students who must pay travel expenses as well as a share of materials and construction costs. A website has been set up for donations at: tinyurl.com/ODUEWB.

"You're helping students get great experience as they help a small community get something they've never had before," said Austin Meador, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and ODU chapter president. "I think it's a fair donation considering you get to see real results of what your money is paying for."

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