Drinking Water for the Children of Cumayasa, Dominican Republic
Over spring break in March, five senior civil engineering students put their learning into action in the Dominican Republic. There, working with the UNH chapter of Students Without Borders, they implemented a water filtration system they designed back in Durham in schools in Cumayasa, bringing much-needed clean water to 1,200 students there. They also triumphed over customs, completed work by the lights of their smartphones, and romped with schoolchildren. Project manager Tad Robertson, who was joined on the trip by seniors Emily Carlson, Ransom Horner-Richardson, Harrison Roakes, and Alexander Rozycki, tells the story of the project. The students received guidance from UNH Environmental Research Group faculty members Robin Collins, Kevin Gardner, Nancy Kinner, and James Malley.
Civil and environmental engineering students select a senior capstone design project that gives students a more real-world approach to engineering. For our group, we selected the Dominican Republic Drinking Water Project. This project was a Phase II follow up to a 2011 senior design project by recent graduates RaeAnna Hughes, Miguel Miranda, and David Cote which produced a preliminary design and feasibility study for installing a drinking water system at a school in the Dominican Republic. Miguel Miranda’s father’s cousin, Señor Pedro Pool, is the principal at the Tevecentro High School.
The school is in the village of Cumayasa, just outside the city of La Romana, Dominican Republic. It is a small village with small houses made of concrete or corrugated sheet metal and dirt floors. The people of the village struggle against many challenges, including harsh working conditions and typically low incomes of about $120 per month. There is some free public water supplied from the city of La Romana to the village, but it is primarily for toilet flushing and is not considered safe to drink due to high risks of microorganisms that can cause cholera, typhoid and hepatitis. Even the most modest of dirt floor shacks buy bottled water for drinking and cooking or simply go without water. The school’s main source of liquid for the children was small juice boxes and some personal-sized water bladders. We had heard from locals that thirst was a very serious problem in the area and that some children actually drank some of the unsafe tap water. Water-borne diseases continue to be a huge problem in the developing world, especially for children.
Left to right: Professor James Malley, Emily Carlson '12, Ransom Richardson '12 (semi hidden), Cumayasa English teacher and local ambassador Miguel Lorenzo, Alex Rozycki '12, Kayla Mineau '12, Tad Robertson '12, and Harrison Roakes '12.
Starting with the 2011 group’s original design, we constructed a pilot filtration system in Gregg Hall. We tested the entire winter break and were using wastewater from the Durham wastewater treatment plant as a worst-case scenario to ensure that our system was robust and could handle a variety of potential contaminants that may exist in the Dominican Republic. With the help of Students Without Borders and several faculty members -- Dr. Collins, Dr. Gardner, Dr. Kinner and of course our project advisor and "El Jefe," Dr. Malley -- our system was ready to be implemented at the school.
After flying from Logan Airport to Santo Domingo then driving two hours to La Romana on March 7, we had a “client” dinner where we met for the first time, face-to-face, with the principals of two Cumayasa schools along with a Spanish-English translator. At dinner, we learned that the clients wanted our original project plan of providing water for Tevecentro to be modified into building a system at the elementary/middle school, Escuela Duarte, as well, representing a jump in students from roughly 300 to 1,200.
Due to this increase our entire project had to be rethought and replanned on-site and on the fly through a series of design team meetings. An added challenge with the project was working in a country where "blackouts" and power outages are a daily occurrence. Further, we learned that the schools do not get water from La Romana on a regular basis and when it does come they are never sure how many gallons they will get at one time. Undaunted by all this, the next day we went to assess the new site, met with all the classes there and introduced ourselves and talked a little about the project and clean water.
After some educational outreach to the students, our group continued to work on the plumbing of our PVC piping, headed by our construction foreman Harrison, and constructed a roof cover that was designed by Emily. A patio and landscaping fill was added to our original design plans, along with a new spigot design and a mural along the wall of the janitor's closet.
While dealing with all those challenges, we still didn't have one important piece to our filtration system: the filters and the filter housings themselves. Dr. Malley and Ransom had an exceptionally hard time getting our project supplies through customs. Two trips back and forth to the Santo Domingo Airport consuming two full days of team member time and still the officials wouldn't give us the crate. Finally, with the great help of the elementary school's principal, Hilda Pinales, who went to customs on the third day, we got the crate and we could finally tie the whole system together working well past sundown and lighting our work with the light bulb apps on our Droids and iPhones.
Students Without Borders stressed to us the importance of getting the school and the faculty involved in the implementation of the system. To do this, Pedro Pool and the custodian at the school, Augustine, helped in the construction of the system and were taught how the system would operate and be maintained. It was of vital importance that someone be able to maintain the system after we left to ensure that the drinking water system could be used for years to come.
Another main goal of the trip was to conduct an educational outreach program for the students. Our group was focused primarily on teaching about drinking water and water resources, but we also helped the children with their English. Many of the students had never been around Americans before, but they were taking English classes daily. It was very fun to see their interest and enthusiasm with both learning about water and learning English. The children at the school were incredible. They were doing backflips and were so animated; they loved to hang out with us and we were all their personal "caballos" for a good portion of the trip.
Despite the diverse challenges we faced, we refused to fail and provided cleaning drinking water for the children. We dealt with some very real-world challenges and learned a lot about working as a team and completing a successful project, no matter what was thrown at us. It was a very joyful moment when we first turned the tap and clean drinking water started flowing. The only thing left to do at that point was fill a jug and pour out cups for the smiling and excited children of Cumayasa to drink up.
Our team couldn’t have accomplished this project without financial support from the Chatham-Beech Charitable Foundation of Springfield, Mass.; the CH2M Hill Foundation of Denver; and the UNH Environmental Research Group (ERG). We’re also grateful to Kayla Mineau ‘12, a liaison to UNH Engineers Without Borders, who went with us as translator and helped us perform the project; Casey Richardson, Ransom’s wife, who accompanied the team and helped us with the project construction and education of the school children; and Dr. Malley’s wife, Joyce Malley, who accompanied us and helped as an interpreter and with the education program.
Written by Tad Robertson '12.