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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 30, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 32
Getting Pumped

DOGEE graduate student Maya Sathyanadhan, left, and Chicorral villagers near the spring that now serves as the community's source of water.

Young engineers head to rural Guatemala to put their lessons to work

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

For the villagers of Chicorral, Guatemala, the routine practice of obtaining water will be considerably less cumbersome and time consuming next year, thanks to a team of Johns Hopkins engineering students.

The isolated village of Chicorral lies in a mountainous region of the Central American country and currently has no electricity or plumbing. To get drinking water, villagers must traverse down a 250-foot ravine and draw water, some 30 pounds at a time, from a stream. The trip takes 15 to 20 minutes, needs to be repeated several times a day and takes time away from other activities that could benefit the families.

Hope Corsair, a graduate student in the Whiting School's Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, visited the village in July 2006 to conduct a survey on regional energy supplies and to identify potential project locations for the Johns Hopkins chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

In Chicorral, Corsair found an ideal situation to match with the talents of the young Hopkins engineers.

The mission of Engineers Without Borders is to partner with disadvantaged communities worldwide to improve quality of life through implementation of environmentally and economically sustainable engineering projects. Founded in 2005, the Johns Hopkins EWB chapter has already sent dozens of undergraduate and graduate students around the world to implement such projects, aided by professional engineers from the Baltimore area who partner with the organization. The professional engineers serve as mentors to the students and provide technical guidance and expertise.

To fund its projects, EWB-JHU engages in fund-raising initiatives, supplemented by grants and financial assistance from university departments.

Maya Sathyanadhan, the chapter's president and a graduate student in DOGEE, went to Chicorral during spring break with Corsair and two professional engineers to meet with the community's residents to determine their needs, and then conduct water testing and survey the land.

Following discussions with the residents, the team volunteered to build a pump that would supply drinking water to the community more efficiently than the current methods.

"We need to do this the right way. When we go into a community like this, we're there to determine what they want, not decide for them," Sathyanadhan said. "Once we understood their needs, then we started to look at how much water they use, who will use it and where we should build the pump. We wanted to let them know what we realistically could do for them."

To help realize its project, the EWB Guatemalan team applied for, and has just received, a grant from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace program. The philanthropist, on the occasion of her 100th birthday, established the program with a $1 million donation to encourage and support motivated youth to create and implement their ideas for building peace throughout the world. Each award recipient receives $10,000.

Based on the preliminary assessments, the Guatemalan team plans to either drill boreholes for water extraction or build a solar-powered water pump and adjoining tank on a ridge that is centrally located to several homes and the local school.

Currently, a group of nine Johns Hopkins students is involved in the design phase of the project, and sometime this summer the students, with the assistance of professional partners from the engineering company CH2M HILL, will travel to Chicorral to begin implementation, which will likely involve borehole testing, drilling and tank construction.

Sathyanadhan said that the team is aiming to complete the project by January.

"We are really excited about the project," she said. "The community members are willing to help provide a lot of the labor for us. It's vital that they are involved as much as possible, as we need to build something they will actually use. And they need to understand the building process so that they know how to repair [the pump]."

Once the pump is operational, Sathyanadhan envisions an improved way of life for the 200 villagers.

"Providing for them an easier way to drink and wash their clothes could completely change their lives in a substantial way," she said. "I'm hopeful it will."

The Guatemala effort is one of three ongoing Engineers Without Borders projects; the other two are the installation of a ram pump for the irrigation of a communal vegetable garden in an AIDS-stricken area of South Africa, and the design and construction of a community daycare center in Ecuador.

For more information about the group, go to


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