Working overseas, students encounter the technological and human sides of meeting people’s needs.
By Kathryn LoConte Lapierre
Photographs by Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering
For more than a decade, Thayer students have pursued a wide range of humanitarian engineering projects overseas. In 2003, students established a Dartmouth chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Two years later, they founded their own organization, Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects, which morphed into Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering in 2010. Despite the evolving nomenclature, the students’ goal remains the same: engineering a better life for those in need.
While some projects were done in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Nepal, most of the students’ humanitarian efforts have centered on rural areas of Africa. Here’s a look at the scope and progress of those projects.
The Nyamilu Community Water Project began in 2005 as a joint Engineers Without Borders (EWB) project between Dartmouth and Louisiana State University (LSU). Dartmouth agreed to construct a well and install a solar-powered pump; LSU would handle the water distribution system.
The Dartmouth engineers arrived in the village of Nyamilu eager to select a well location, secure drilling permits, and get to work. Reality took a slower pace. “Information was inaccurate and it was difficult to depend on people,” says Michael Bolger Th’05 ’07. “We were unable to procure a drilling permit from the Kenyan government until the majority of our project team had left the country.” Bolger, who stayed on, helped bring the Dartmouth portion of the project to a successful conclusion: implementing a 98-meter borehole and installing a photovoltaic-powered water pump.
The LSU team started to add a gravity-fed water distribution system the next summer; six Dartmouth students returned to finish the job in 2007.
“We ended up having to do a lot of work,” says Bradley Fierstein ’06 Th’08. “The pump had been undersized and there was a lot of damage. There was a lot of catching up to be done, and we started from scratch.”
But they had lots of help from village residents. “With a community workforce, we finalized distribution points and then set about getting the trench excavation done for the pipelines. We had 40 people working together. We really started cruising after that,” says Fierstein.
After three days of digging trenches, the team turned to building masonry tap stands, fitting the plumbing, and testing for leaks. “That’s when we ran into one of our bigger problems,” says Fierstein. “The storage tank that had been constructed by the LSU group had developed a crack and started leaking.” The Dartmouth group had to gut the walls and effectively rebuild and fortify the storage tank.
The finished project incorporated a 30,000-liter tank and 6,000 meters of pipe that ran a radius of two kilometers around the well. The distribution system ultimately brought water to 12 different tap stands placed in a communal location. As projected, the solar-powered pump met the drinking-water demands of 2,000 people.
The success was short-lived, however. “Unstable political conditions in Kenya have led to desperate times and the theft of the solar panels,” Bolger reports.
The project remains instructive, says current Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering (DHE) president Annie Saunders ’12. “It did really help us understand the different challenges of working internationally and trying to collaborate on an engineering project.”
Sanitation Biogas Fuel
Benjamin Koons ’08, J.J. Johnson ’06 Th’07, and Andrew Johnston ’06 Th’08 worked at a health clinic in the remote village of Bisate. Partnering with Wyman Worldwide Health Partners, a small, Hanover-based healthcare NGO, the team helped built sanitary latrines to serve the village’s 20,000 residents.
The next step would be really ingenious: install a biogas digester system to convert the human waste into fertilizer for crops and methane for fuel. The students thought the methane would be a welcome alternative to the charcoal residents made from wood—especially given that the Rwandan government had prohibited people from cutting down trees.
Progress was slow. “We had planned for this,” says Koons, “but not well enough.” By the time the biogas digester was actually producing methane, the Dartmouth students were already back in Hanover. They hoped their partner would continue the work, but for various reasons the NGO moved on to another clinic. “This was frustrating and out of our control, but also an important lesson in who we choose as in-country partners,” says Koons.
Members of Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects (HELP) began to work on an inexpensive small-scale hydropower system in the village of Banda in 2008. HELP partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society and gained sponsorship from the United Nations Development Programme.
HELP’s plan was to design a prototype at Thayer School and then travel to Rwanda to install at least one locally fabricated turbine based on that prototype. The system would generate enough electricity to power a battery-charging station for the village.
“There were batteries in the community, but people would have to walk 44 kilometers each way to the nearest village with gridded electricity. That would take two days,” says project member Koons. “That’s two days that they don’t have lights.”
Based on lessons learned from past projects, the HELP group stipulated that the project would use local materials, engage local labor, and teach community members how to recreate the technology in other villages once the Dartmouth students had returned home.
It was a formula for success. “When we left Banda we had two hydro turbines producing electricity,” says Koons. When Derek Brand ’09 Th’10 visited Banda that fall to develop the business model, trouble-shoot any issues, and expand the electricity distribution, the project was going strong.
It still is, reports DHE president Saunders. “Recently there’s been a big effort to get more students involved,” she says. “Since that project was installed we’ve had two ENGS 89/90 teams working on the project, revamping the casing, adding an emergency shut-off-valve, and increasing efficiency.”
A group of students planned to return to Rwanda this summer to follow up in Banda and assess a new site outside of Kigali. The eight Dartmouth students planned to optimize and expand a network of small-scale hydropower systems, funded in part by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. “We start projects with the intent of making them sustainable in the long run,” says Saunders.
In the spring of 2008, Dartmouth engineers began a major undertaking in Tanzania to address health and energy needs. Students conducted assessment trips in the Kigoma region and developed collaborative relationships with the Jane Goodall Institute and the University of Dar es Salaam College of Engineering and Technology. In the summer of 2009, students were ready to introduce two new cooking stoves. Why cooking stoves? Because traditional wood stoves are inefficient and smoky, leading to high rates of deforestation and acute respiratory infections.
Wood-Burning Rocket Stoves
The students introduced rocket stoves in Mwamgongo. “The rocket stove consists of six clay bricks surrounded by a mud brick housing structure,” says Saunders. The cooking is done on top of a short insulated ‘rocket’ chimney. It burns wood more efficiently, requiring less fuel and reducing smoke.
With community members’ help, the group built approximately 20 stoves in local homes. “The stove was widely adopted in Mwamgongo,” says Zachary Losordo ’10 Th’11. Government restrictions on the amount of wood each family can gather have increased demand for the stove. “As a result,” says Losordo, “the government has been extraordinarily supportive of our project, collaborating with us to market and distribute the stove to the community.”
“The rocket stove is a very cheap means of cooking,” says Nathaniel Brakeley ’12. “It uses about 50 percent less fuel and burns a lot cleaner, so it helps with both health issues and energy problems.”
Students returned to assess how the stoves were faring one year later. Taking notes from villagers on possible enhancements, they improved the size, aesthetics, and stability of the stoves. Then the team focused on a large-scale distribution initiative. “The idea was to have local technical experts, who can build the stove and know the benefits of it,” says current project leader Stephanie Crocker ’12.
“In order to disseminate the technology, we hosted a seminar where we taught a group of 11 community members how to assemble the stoves from scratch,” says Losordo. “The participants put the entire stove together in under two hours.”
The aim was to have the community drive the distribution system. “We want people to teach their neighbors and their friends to build the stove,” says Crocker.
Another group of students monitored progress again during winter 2010. “Some sub-villages were more successful than others,” says Crocker. “Our current estimate is that 50 to 55 stoves are in use right now. There are about 500 households, so it’s reaching about 10 percent of the population.”
Continuity is crucial, according to Saunders. “The longer we’ve been there, we’ve developed closer relationships,” she says. “Those close relationships lead to better trust, and that’s a really crucial part of the success in any project.”
For the village of Kalinzi, located in Tanzania’s northern coffee region, Dartmouth students designed a stove that burns plentiful coffee husks instead of scarce wood. “We thought it would be great if we could take a waste product and use that as fuel,” says Kathleen Meyer ’12.
After an initial assessment trip in 2008, students designed the stove as their ENGS 190/290 (now called ENGS 89/90) project, using Hawaiian coffee husks as fuel. When they tried out the stove in Kalinzi in 2010, they found it didn’t work as well in Tanzania because of differences in the size and density of local coffee husks. Kevin McGregor ’11 and Ryan Birjoo ’11 redesigned the stove for Tanzanian conditions. Another group of students planned to test the reconfigured stove in Tanzania this summer. “The goal is to solidify the technology in the first month and spend the next month implementing and marketing it,” says Meyer.
“We’re hoping to identify entrepreneurs who would like to start selling the stove and help them start their business,” says Crocker.
“Overall, it has been a really successful technology for developing countries,” says Meyer. “It’s something that could be implemented in other places, which we’re really excited about.”
As students traveled around Tanzania, other challenges and problems came to light. “We keep our eyes open while we’re working,” says Saunders. “We make the most of our time and resources and focus on multiple issues.”
One problem: a high rate of water contamination. The students’ solution: a composting latrine.
The composting latrine consists of two pits. When the first is full, the contents are left to turn into compost, which can be used as fertilizer. People use the other pit, and then the system alternates.
“The object was to teach locals how to build and maintain the latrine to prevent flooding or collapsing,” says Andrew Wong ’12.
The idea didn’t take. “Unfortunately, we found that the concept of using human waste as fertilizer was kind of taboo,” says Saunders.
“Our lack of experience led to our downfall,” says Losordo. “We didn’t understand the challenges associated with working in an entirely different cultural context. This failure gave us a much better sense of our scope as an organization.”
Solar Water Disinfection
As another solution to sanitation needs, DHE has begun research in solar water disinfection, which uses only sunlight and PET bottles to disinfect water. “It’s a really simple technology,” says Crocker. “We will be doing some testing this summer.”
Students have instituted a sanitation checklist to help villagers document problems and keep up on the general maintenance of latrines and other systems. After following up with the community, the students found the simple checklist to be successful. “It’s not changing the water systems dramatically,” says Crocker, “but it has raised awareness for the communities.”
The last current project that students are working on in Tanzania is a wind turbine to bring much needed electricity to one of Kalinzi’s 10 sub-villages. The turbine would be an alternative to the three diesel generators in the center of town.
“The wind turbine would be really small scale electricity, but right now the people in this sub-village have a 45-minute walk to charge small electronics,” says Meyer.
Kalinzi residents and students collaborated to construct a data collection tower with two anemometers for measuring wind speed and frequency, which will collect data for one full year. “We’re all pretty excited about this project,” says Crocker. “We’re starting to figure out a design, and we’re going to try and build a local site this summer.
—Kathryn LoConte Lapierre is the assistant editor of Dartmouth Engineer.
Changing lives, including their own
The challenges that arose in attempting to complete even a basic engineering project in the developing world greatly outweigh anything that I have faced in my professional life. You learn a lot when you must understand cultural etiquette, motivate people to complete work without pay, and ultimately implement a functional solution.
—Michael Bolger Th’05 ’07
The HELP project changed my life permanently. Not only did it give me the best tangible human connection to an engineering project I could ask for, but it gave a context to the tremendous impact energy has on daily life. Since the project, I have committed myself to trying to better understand the incredible complexities surrounding energy and its relationship with both the developed and developing worlds.
—Bradley Fierstein ’06 Th’08
There is huge potential for creative engineering solutions to make a serious impact. The time I spent with Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering will continue to have profound impact on how I view the world and my place in it as an engineer.
—Benjamin Koons ’08