In 2010, the Rensselaer Engineers Without Borders chapter was formed and applied for its first project: creating a water treatment system for a community in Panama on Isla Popa II. Since then, the club has selected key members each year to travel over Winter Break to the community. The first three trips involved assessing the community’s situation, and concluding the most important needs. After drafting designs, filling out pages of paper work, and conducting chlorine tests, RPI’s EWB was ready to begin implementing their plans to build a rainwater catchment system. In last year’s implementation trip, they were successful in working in tandem with the community to build such a system. The water collected, however, was not treated. The latest Winter Break’s trip was meant for the creation and implementation of a chlorination system tank to be added to the existing structure.
Upon arrival, EWB members Tim Andrews ’18, Mike Kubista ’17, Elizabeth Kwon ’18, Frank Sokolowski ’18, and Mariana Cintron ’19 found the rainwater catchment system in disrepair. “We went mostly with the intent of building the additional system, we anticipated a few repairs that would need to be made. I don’t think we were prepared for the extent of repairs we would need to do before actually building the system. So this caused some problems because we didn’t have all of the materials, the tools that we needed, so a couple of days were spent assessing what changes had to be made,” says Kwon.
The team worked with the community leaders to gather materials and teach the locals how to conduct repairs. When questioned over how the team dealt with these challenges, Andrews replied, “Throughout the project we had help from several of the community leaders. The person in charge of the community, his name is Ambrosio, he was a big help. He supplied us with the wood that we used for building the tank stands, with some of the construction…Daniel, who is the president of the school, he also helped us with the construction. Their labor was actually factored into the community contribution for the cost of the project, which was cool, there were several other community members who helped with the construction of the system [as well].”
Despite the poor condition the system had been in, the community continued to utilize it and never once ran out of water. Beyond structural stumbling blocks, the team discovered complications with the new designs they planned to make for the chlorination system. “We weren’t able to find the 55 gallon drum that we anticipated getting, so we had to modify the designs and change it to fit the 40 gallon tanks that were available,” Kwon informs. According to Sokolowski, whose main job on the trip was monitoring the chlorine levels, the team recalculated the original 5.25 percent chlorine bleach with the 55 gallon tank to the available 3.5 percent chlorine bleach with the 40 gallon tank. Fortunately, the resulting amount of bleach was a round 10 milliliters—a simple and easy to measure amount for the community to facilitate themselves. “One thing to stress is that when we asked for Ambrosio’s water, he went to go get it himself, [and] when we got it back, it completely killed everything on the bacteria circle test. I tested out the chlorine, and it turned out to be way too high for human consumption. It’s very important to realize that although chlorine can be used to treat water, too much can be toxic,” Sokolowski recounts.
In addition to the complications they encountered with the design, the team also faced the obstacle of conveying the importance of treating water to the community. The team performed petri film bacteria tests, which incubate with body heat for typically 24 hours. Following these tests, they discovered that there were colonies of E. coli and total coliform growing in the untreated water. “Since we had this tangible proof, we were able to convey to the community members why chlorination is so important in their water and why we’re stressing the need for this chlorine treatment tank,” says Kwon. It became apparent, especially with the case of the bacteria petri films, that water treatment education for the community was a necessity.
“We taught Ambrosio and Daniel how to use the system in the right way,” Andrews recounts. “At the end, after we showed them how to treat their water, we had Ambrosio do it himself, to show us that he was able to do it on his own. As he was measuring out the chlorine and going about the process of treating the water, he was almost sentimental about the fact that he was making his own water clean, and that was a really cool experience, because it showed that what we were doing was having an impact in the community on the members who live there and drink that water. It was neat.”
With another successful trip behind them, the members of RPI’s Engineers Without Borders look toward the closing of this project. Next year they will return for the last time to Isla Popa II, where they will conduct a monitoring trip to assess how well the community is treating the system and how the system itself is faring. “If we decide that all of the goals that we had set had been met and the system is actually meeting their water supply and water supply needs, we’ll close up this project and go onto a new project in a new community,” Andrews says.
While much of the travel team’s expertise was born of their pre-existing knowledge of design and science they obtained in school, the lessons learned and experience had on this trip to Panama were invaluable. “I think one of the biggest things that we all learned was that you can’t plan for everything. We really took away experience and learning on [our] feet, and learning as you go, so when you reach an unexpected problem, you can get creative with your solution,” said Kwon.