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NJIT engineers working to help clean water in Haitian village

haiti8_optMore than a dozen NJIT civil and mechanical engineering students, faculty and interested staff members have spent the past three years working with villagers in a poor Haitian village to remove bacteria from their drinking water and halt water-borne illnesses.

Working under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the NJIT group has made four visits to Milot, Haiti, to date, and are planning one last visit in October.

"The idea is to make the people self-sufficient, "said EWB President Paul Rodriguez, who will be a senior at NJIT. "When we finish this project, 25 bio-sand filters will have been installed in 21 homes, two churches and two schools. We will have set up a filter production center and worked side-by-side with a dozen students now capable of building and installing more units."

Some 30,000 people live in the town and ideally there eventually will be 3,500 units, which the group hopes the people will be able to build themselves. Rodriguez, of Harrison, is a McNair Scholar.

The idea for this project germinated several years back, when a physician working with Doctors Without Borders in Milot kept seeing people getting ill from the water. He explained the problem to his friend, NJIT civil engineering professor Jay Meegoda, of Millburn, a water expert. The comment inspired Meegoda to start an NJIT chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Students and others flocked to the first meeting.

"I've always had a great ambition to help others and work for a cause," said Rodriguez. "I am very proud of my work with EWB and the positive impact our project can have on Milot. The work has brought meaning to my life. But it was thanks to NJIT that I found the environmentalist and humanitarian within me. If it wasn't for these experiences, I would have never uncovered and pursued this newfound passion."

Among the most active participants: past EWB President Bryce Anzelmo, of Lincoln Park, who will graduate from NJIT next month to start a graduate engineering program at Columbia University; Kate Boardman, of New Providence, a senior, working this summer as a co-operative student at General Electric, Schenectady, NY; NJIT University Registrar Joseph Thompson, of Summit; and Allyn Luke, manager of the concrete laboratory for NJIT's Newark College of Engineering.

"I didn't go on that first trip," said Rodriguez, "but the most surprising news was that no one in Milot could understand that they had a water problem." To convince the villagers otherwise, the students took water samples from homes and wells throughout the town. "The results showed, that the water was full of bacteria," Rodriguez said.

haiti7_optExplaining this to the locals was a problem. This is a town in which women still carry water back to their families from a nearly river. Most people speak only Creole and few are educated. Communicating simple information, let alone an engineering report, seemed impossible. Luckily, a local physician at a nearby hospital (not the professor's friend) and a local priest stepped in. Together the two presented the data in a manner that made sense to the people. The project was born.

The students returned to Newark to research the best filter. They settled on a design for a four-foot high square, hollow concrete box that local people could eventually build for themselves. The NJIT students built the first few units, and then taught the process to a group of young men from Milot who were technology students.

Through a series of fund-raising events, the villagers raised $125,500 to subsidize, in part, the cost of the first 25 units. Although each unit cost $40, the NJIT students sold the units for only $5 each.

A bio-sand filter works by arranging a combination of gravel and sand in a vertical cylinder so that as water is poured into it, more than 95 percent of the pathogens are eliminated.

One cycle produces five gallons of water, which can be accessed through a spout in the concrete filter.

"This effort is not the first one to bring clean water to this tiny, poor village," said Rodriguez. But he and the others at NJIT hope it will be successful enough to be the last.

"We designed this project to enable the people to build the filters themselves and monitor their own water supply. We will leave them with a talented pool of local workers and a better understanding of what it means to have clean water and why clean water matters."

– ANDREW LAGOMARSINO, NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

 

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