This winter break, eight members of Rensselaer’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders traveled to the remote island community of Isla Popa II on the Gulf coast of Panama to construct a sustainable source of clean drinking water. Without access to a reliable source of drinking water, the community’s 350 inhabitants use water collected from unsanitary rainwater collection systems for their daily needs. This water is contaminated with bacteria and is suspected to be responsible for various health problems within the community. While on the trip, members of EWB built a large-scale rainwater collection system in addition to constructing bio-sand filters to purify the collected water. This increased the community’s rainwater collection capacity and provided a treatment method to purify the water.
RPI’s chapter of EWB has spent the past four and a half years working with Isla Popa II, planning and assessing how best to help the community in a significant, sustainable, and efficient way. Prior to this trip, the club traveled to the community three other times to assess the location and to plan the final rainwater catchment system design. On these trips, the club conducted many water quality tests, took measurements of potential implementation sites, and built relations with the community. After years of preparation, the club was ready to implement their designs.
Leaving in mid-January, the team spent a total of ten days in Panama. Upon arriving, the team traveled to the Bocas del Toro region in the north of the country along the Gulf of Mexico. The region consists of a series of heavily forested islands clustered together along the coast. The team spent their first day on the island of Isla Colon purchasing the supplies needed for the construction of the rainwater catchment system and bio-sand filters. After hours of shopping at a local hardware store, the team successfully purchased all the materials they needed. They then loaded a barge with all of the supplies and set off for Isla Popa II. It was the last time they would see a car or running water for the next seven days.
The following week was spent busily constructing the rainwater catchment system and bio-sand filters. The rainwater catchment system was built onto the existing community pavilion, and feeds into two 600 gallon tanks. The pavilion is a rectangular structure with a concrete floor and is roofed with corrugated aluminum. It is approximately 100 feet long, and about half as wide. Each of the tanks was mounted on a stand constructed on site and set in concrete adjacent to the pavilion. PVC pipes were then attached along the edge of the roof to be used as rain gutters, directing water from the large roof into the tanks.
The bio-sand filters were made by filling five gallon buckets with specific layers of thoroughly rinsed sand. When water is poured into these filters, the water slowly flows through the sand layers and particulate contaminates are filtered out. Additionally, a small bio-layer forms near the surface of the sand which removes harmful bacteria, leaving the user with clean drinking water. These filters provide a simple way for community members to purify water collected from their rainwater catchment systems.
Thanks to the help of several community members, construction was completed on schedule. After seven days, the team successfully built the rainwater catchment system and bio-sand filters, leaving the community with a clean source of drinking water. However, that is not the end of this story. EWB at RPI plans to continue working with the people of Isla Popa II to ensure their system functions as planned and hopes to build similar additional systems on other structures throughout the community. Both the community and the club are excited to see what the future will bring.
RPI’s chapter of EWB was formed in late 2010, and has been working with the community of Isla Popa II since its commencement. The RPI chapter is a part of Engineers Without Borders–USA; a national organization that works to provide sustainable engineering solutions to communities across the globe. Since its founding in 2001, EWB-USA has supported hundreds of community improvement projects across forty-seven countries, making a lasting impact around the world. Interested in joining? EWB RPI is always looking for new members. Visit their website at ewb.union.rpi.edu for more information about when they meet and what they do.