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August 7, 09

NEWS / Engineers Bring Better Health to Rural Communities

They share skills to provide access to clean water, functioning hospitals
By Kathryn McConnell
Staff Writer

Washington — Residents of Los Planes, Honduras, say that since their village gained access to clean water, they feel “born again.”

Los Planes is one of three Honduran villages that student volunteers from Northeastern University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA have visited to lend their skills so residents could have potable water at home.

Founded in 2001 in Colorado, the nonprofit organization has nearly 50 student and professional chapters. Members — engineers in various disciplines and other skilled specialists — voluntarily build systems that provide clean water, electricity and other basic services to poor communities everywhere.


The United Nations estimates that more than 1 billion people around the world do not have access to clean water.

In Honduras, 25 percent of rural residents lack clean water, said Dan Saulnier, a professional civil engineer and a group mentor for Northeastern University, located in Boston.

When Saulnier’s group arrived at Los Planes to survey the community’s water needs, the only water source was a 20-minute walk from the village and downstream from several other villages. It was the same source livestock used. Some people washed vehicles in it.

“The villagers were constantly getting sick from the water,” Saulnier said.

He and his group determined that the only feasible clean water source was a spring at the top of a small mountain 3.2 kilometers away. Their challenge would be to get the water over two rocky crossings of the Quebrada La Reinada River to the village storage tank. Back in Boston, they designed a solution: build bridges to hold pipes carrying water over the river.

The volunteers returned to Honduras with their designs and constructed the bridges and laid pipe. Throughout the process, villagers worked side-by-side with them. The line now runs from the spring to the tank at the edge of town. From there it is distributed to newly installed home taps.

Workers with another aid group, Sustainable Harvest International of Maine, taught the villagers how to use their new water supply to grow a variety of crops. “Now we can grow cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions, radishes and beans,” one villager said through an interpreter.

“With better nutrition and improved hygiene, the quality of life of the villagers has drastically improved,” Saulnier said.

Saulnier said the Northeastern group was planning another trip to Honduras in August, but because of a political crisis there, Engineers Without Borders-USA told them not to go. He said the next target travel time is December. (See “Honduran Crisis Must be Resolved Peacefully and Lawfully.”)


In Les Anglais, Haiti, members of the Portland, Oregon, professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA worked to repair a water system serving 40,000 people. The system had deteriorated and become contaminated with bacteria. In 2008, it was further weakened when hurricanes struck the region. Residents of Les Anglais had to walk 15 minutes to get drinking water from the nearest tap. During dry months, they collected water from surface pools.

In early 2009, Portland team members surveyed households in the community to assess health and to determine urgent water needs. Using global positioning devices, they collected data needed to develop a water-system map of the service area. They made major repairs to existing pipes.

On a return trip to Les Anglais in July 2009, the volunteers and local workers completed flushing debris from the repaired pipes. The workers celebrated their success at the community’s reservoir. “This is part of what makes our work so enjoyable,” said Carolyn Shapiro, group leader.

The group’s next trip will be to install a chlorinator, which is expected to drastically reduce incidences of diarrhea.


Engineering World Health, a group founded in 2001 with a similar mission, has 15 chapters of electrical-engineering students and professionals who go to hospitals in poor countries to install donated equipment and train staff to use it and to fix broken medical devices.

Often, when medical volunteers from Tennessee-based International Children’s Heart Foundation went to a developing country to lend assistance, they found broken medical equipment — or donated equipment that had arrived without manuals or power converters. They were limited in their ability to help patients.

“We felt sending engineers along would help,” said Duke University biomedical engineering professor Robert Malkin, a friend of the foundation and founder of Engineering World Health.

By making devices like therapeutic lights, heart monitors and ventilators operational, volunteers can more than double the number of cases that operating rooms can handle, Malkin said.

Volunteers from Duke University visited Tanzania to train staff in how to operate an incubator for neo-natal care.

Now, babies born prematurely are able to survive, said group member Ben Grant




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