Honduras Water Project: Part 2

This blog post is a follow-up to a post from last semester about the Honduras Water Project. This course, which provides students the chance to see how learning can have real life applications, is an extremely unique opportunity for students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

UIUC flyer for the Honduras Water Project Course

A University of Illinois flyer for the Honduras Water Project course

The two-semester long course is supported by the College of Engineering and included a research trip to Cerro Verde, Honduras over winter break. A small group of students was accompanied by professors Ann-Perry Witmer and Keilin Jahnke in visiting the small community site. While there we conducted surveys, both technical and social, and also included a health education workshop to work in correlation with our studies from the fall semester and also to aid in our efforts for this spring semester as well.

During our 10 days there, we lived in the community with the local people and stayed in a regional home, living on dirt floors without a shower for 10 days. Through this experience, we were able to see just a small amount of what life is like in the community. We built friendships and mutual respect during our time in Cerro Verde, and we left with new friendships and a greater drive to complete this project of developing a reliable water distribution system. Students representing each of the four divided teams– social, political, water, and structures– carried out various tasks during the trip to collect needed information for the water distribution system, and also to conduct health education workshops in the community.

The UIUC students, faculty, and our friends from our partner NGO, ADEC. photo credit: Jesse Han

The University of Illinois students, faculty, and our friends from our partnering nongovernmental organization, Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario (ADEC) [Water and Community Development] Photo Credit: Jesse Han

The social team was responsible for conducting household surveys at each of the 46 houses in Cerro Verde. Prior to arriving to Honduras, we created a survey for basic demographic information, household water usage, and overall community health. We interviewed community members from every household in the community. Not only did this provide us with vital information to aid in the construction of the system, but it also allowed us to create relationships with everyone in the community. By the end of the trip, we could not only remember people’s names, but we could also tell you where they lived, how many children they had, and how accessible water was for them.

The Social team conducting household surveys in the community. photo credit: Keilin Jahnke

Two members of the Social team, Wendy Vergara and Ashley Adams, conducting household surveys in the community.
Photo Credit: Keilin Jahnke

The social team also conducted a health education workshop with the help of Oneida Lara Garcia, one of the water quality specialists for our partnering nongovernmental organization, Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario (ADEC) (Water and Community Development). The workshop was originally intended for children, but was expanded when nearly the entire community came to participate.

When asked about the importance of educational workshops in collaboration with international projects, Wendy Vergara, a sophomore in natural resources and environmental science said,

“It’s easy to overlook some of the resources we have in America. When it comes to early education, we don’t second guess it. Not something you think about because it’s required. It’s a resource that is given and provided to nearly everyone in the States. So when you visit a community like Cerro Verde, who only has one school room for all the children, you start to see the opportunities you have that they don’t. These school rooms are very limited in supplies and staff. The community doesn’t have their own teacher, but instead a teacher from a nearby community volunteers their time. This teacher tries to teach all grades at once, and you can feel how difficult that can be. Educational workshops further develop community members’ skills, and allow for information to be communicated to both children and adults. They provide visual knowledge essential to the community such as chlorinating water. Especially due to minimal literacy rates, some people may misuse products or go by word of mouth, which poses a threat to their health. Workshops can help decrease miscommunication and promote a safe space for them to ask questions.”

 

Children and community members gathered for the health education workshop. photo credit: Jesse Han

Children and community members gathered for the health education workshop.
Photo Credit: Jesse Han

The structures team had the opportunity to do the most hiking out of all the teams, although all of us got good exercise climbing through the mountainous area. They surveyed all the points in the community that could be included in the water distribution system. After finishing, two architecture students were able to create a more accurate map of all the houses on site. The Patronato, or, community leaders, requested a copy to post in their community building as well.

Kelsey Schreiber, a senior in general engineering, when discussing the the biggest challenge for the structures team said,

“The most difficult task. . . was ensuring that all of the homes being serviced were properly accounted for and surveyed. Between finding remote homes, distinguishing between current and future plots, and getting the correct homeowner names, we were never quite sure if we had all the correct information. Similarly, climbing the hills every day was brutal but built character.”

 

The nearly finalized schematic of the water distribution system pipelines throughout Cerro Verde.

The nearly finalized schematic of the water distribution system pipelines throughout Cerro Verde.

The water team spent most of its time at the water source which was higher up in the mountains. They performed various tests for flow rate and water quality to help decide which source would be best suited for the system.

When asked what the most interesting thing about the trip to Cerro Verde was, Rahul Koshy, a junior in molecular and cellular biology said,

“We were exposed to people who grew up in a different culture and lived a different lifestyle, but there was definitely an underlying similarity between these and the people I’ve known all my life. I found that it was really easy to relate to the members of Cerro Verde even though they had a very different background than me. This is a small thing to learn, but it has changed the way I view people on the news, people on the streets, people in my life etc.”

 

The water team taking measurements and doing testing at a potential source. photo credit: Jesse Han

The water team taking measurements and doing testing at a potential source.
Photo Credit: Jesse Han

The political team also had an important job, working with the Patronato. It worked to make sure that there was complete transparency between the community, our class, and the NGO. It is imperative for this course, and for international projects, that the community take ownership of the project and that they are involved in every aspect of the planning, design, and implementation. An exciting accomplishment this year was that for the first time in Honduras Water Project’s history that the political team was able to draft and sign a complete agreement with the community and ADEC while still in Honduras.

Samantha Morrow, a senior in earth, society, and environmental sustainability and also global studies, when asked what benefit there is for having a signed agreement has for the project said, 

“The written agreement is extremely important to the project for multiple reasons. Signing this document while we were in Cerro Verde allowed the Patronato and community to have physical evidence of our commitment to this project. This document keeps all parties accountable for their stated responsibilities and will protect the rights of all parties. Without this document the community might lose faith that this project will move forward or believe that we are not committed to the project. Additionally, this document allows us to hold the community accountable to protecting the system and maintaining its sustainability.”

 

The signed agreement between the community of Cerro Verde, the NGO partner ADEC, and UIUC's Honduras Water Project class.

The signed agreement between the community of Cerro Verde, ADEC, and the University of Illinois’ Honduras Water Project class.

The fall semester of our course consisted of preliminary research and also preparations for the trip in January 2016. This semester we have focused on creating the most appropriate system for the community. Our class has been in constant contact with ADEC, as well as the community regarding every step and decision in the design process. 

Keilin Jahnke is a PhD student in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and professor for the course. When asked what benefit can come from spending time in the community that one is working with for an international engineering project, she responded saying,

“It can be easy to sit in a classroom thousands of miles away from the community that you are working with and think of nothing else besides the technical components of the project. But actually experiencing the community, living with the people you are working with, gives you the social and cultural context that is vital for the project’s success. No longer are you just working on an engineering project, you are acting as a consultant to real people who have real lives, real intricacies, real needs.”

 

This course, ENG 398/498: Honduras Water Project, is led every year and is open to all students.It not only teaches you new technical knowledge, but it can also provide new perspectives about approaching international work. It has has encouraged me to pursue a master degree in engineering as these efforts blend STEM and interdisciplinary studies, and always promote a holistic approach towards international projects.

To hear more about the final design for the water distribution system for Cerro Verde come to the John Deere Pavilion onTuesday, May 3, 2016 from 4:00- 6:00 p.m. Everyone is welcome! For additional information, visit the Honduras Water Project website and/or contact Professor Ann-Perry Witmer.

Flyer for our Final Presentation May 3, 2016

Flyer for the course’s final presentation May 3, 2016

 

The Honduras Water Project

The University of Illinois provides its students with many opportunities to learn about different countries and cultures, engage in international work and also learn through service-learning. One exciting opportunity for students at UIUC is a course that has been offered for the past 3 years. Supported by the College of Engineering, the Honduras Water Project gives students an opportunity to apply classroom learning to real-life work.

UIUC flyer for the Honduras Water Project Course -- Illinois-Span-Advising Website

UIUC flyer for the Honduras Water Project Course — Illinois-Span-Advising Website

This course spans two semesters and includes the opportunity to travel to the Central American nation of Honduras. Working with a local NGO in country, students learn how to design a gravity-flow water distribution system while also learning how to ensure sustainability of the project. During the trip, students visit the specific community where the designed system will be implemented. They get to know the community as well as collect information to better meet the needs of its residents.

Ann-Perry Witmer, the course instructor, believes the Honduras Water Project is unique because of

The interdisciplinary nature of it. It’s a fabulous opportunity for engineering students to broaden their understanding while collaborating with other students. Everyone is able to learn from each other while expanding their own understanding of the world.”

Honduras is a Spanish-speaking country located in the north-central part of Central America. It has a population of over 8 million people and the capital city is Tegucigalpa, located in the south-central region of the country.

 "Map of Central America" by Cacahuate, amendments by Joelf - Own work based on the blank world map. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Central_America.png#/media/File:Map_of_Central_America.png

“Map of Central America” by Cacahuate, amendments by Joelf – Own work based on the blank world map. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Honduras Water Project course focuses on working with rural communities in Honduras, along with the help and collaboration of a local Honduran non-governmental organization, Agua y Desarrollo Comunitario (ADEC). ADEC is based out of Marcala, Honduras, but works in many rural areas, thus fostering its ability to provide support to the Honduras Water Project courses throughout the years. This NGO assists UIUC students throughout the entirety of the course because of its experience in water, sanitation, health, and hygiene projects in rural areas of Honduras.

Picture of the ADEC sign in Marcala, Honduras - from a previous trip, posted on http://hwpillinois.weebly.com/

Picture of the ADEC sign in Marcala, Honduras – from a previous trip, posted on the course’s website

As mentioned above, the course is led by Ann-Perry Witmer, a practicing Civil Engineer and Teaching Associate with the College of Engineering at UIUC. Ann has worked on a number of international service projects and emphasizes the importance of understanding sociopolitical and cultural influences while working on contextual engineering designs of a project as well.

When asked what she would like the UIUC community to know about the course, Ann responded, “These opportunities exist to step outside your own comfort zone and learn from others while sharing your own knowledge.” Also, that because of this class “we’re redefining how international service is done, to make it more sustainable and more recipient-focused.” Furthermore, “At the root of courses like this is the focus of building respect for the developing world  – and appreciation for how large it is – and then how much we can learn from them.”

Group of UIUC students from a previous trip -- photo by Ann-Perry Witmer

Group of UIUC students from a previous trip — photo by Ann-Perry Witmer

This course is not reserved only for engineering students. Rather, it incorporates students from all departments and disciplines who then come together to work through every step in the process of understanding the problem, creating a contextual design, and working hand-in-hand with the community.

I am enrolled in the course and have had the great opportunity to work with students from all levels and all departments throughout the semester. Currently I am a second year graduate student in African Studies at UIUC. I have spent time working with an NGO in East Africa on a water project, installing shallow wells for clean drinking water in rural communities. With this experience, my passion for water was born. I realized how extremely important water is; that water is life. While pursuing my degree in African Studies here at UIUC, I have taken courses in health, urban planning, and engineering that have all complemented one another and helped to provide me with a more holistic view of international service projects. I am excited to have found a class that takes an interdisciplinary and holistic approach to an international service project and I’m glad that I can share my experience working in East Africa with everyone working on the project in Honduras.

This course is divided into two different semesters. The fall semester of the class is focused around preliminary design work and also how to incorporate a holistic view of the project, including emphasis on the technical, social, and political components of the project. The spring semester will be focused more on the finalization of the design as well as grant-writing to fund the project. We are currently continuing preparations for our trip to Cerro Verde, the community that we will be working on the design with.

A group of students and alumni mentors (students from previous years) will be traveling to Cerro Verde, Honduras from January 7-17, 2016. While there we will be doing a number of things, including household surveys, water-quality testing, health and hygiene education, and also on-site collaboration with ADEC, the community members, and the local water committee.

For the final project of this semester, the Honduras Water Project class will be giving a conceptual design presentation to discuss what we have accomplished in the course this fall, as well as what our plans are for the trip in January. This presentation is open to the public, in the hopes of raising awareness of the project, and will take place on Tuesday, December 15th at 7pm in Deere Pavilion. All students, faculty, and community members are welcome to attend. 

Flyer for the Honduras Water Project Conceptual Design Presentation, December 15, 2015

Flyer for the Honduras Water Project Conceptual Design Presentation, December 15, 2015

I will also be doing a follow-up post this spring, detailing what was accomplished during the January trip, as well as how the design, funding search, and future implementation plans are going.

This is the third project in three years for Honduras Water Project. For more specific information about the past projects, visit the Honduras Water Project website.

When asked about the future of the course, Ann-Perry Witmer responded, 

“This is just the start. We have a course this spring that is building on Honduras Water Project by researching the impact that engineering design has on communities. I would like to see it to continue to grow on an understanding that any discipline involved in international development can benefit. An interdisciplinary approach needs to be more widespread. And it will only make engineers stronger.”

To get access to more posts like these, follow our Facebook page and be sure to check back in January to learn about my experience in Central America!