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Water Filtration Systems Built for Two Elementary Schools in Guatemala by W&L’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

Members of W&L’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) recently traveled to Guatemala to build much needed water filters for elementary schools.

Working through a non-government organization (NGO) Pueblo a Pueblo, they built two bio-sand water filtration systems for nearby pueblo elementary schools in Panabaj and La Cumbre.

Two individuals from W&L’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) club and two professional engineers from Wiley-Wilson in Lynchburg, Va., supported the group with translation and engineering services.

After combining with Pueblo a Pueblo (PaP), the EWB spent several months preparing for their on-site work by making prototypes in the Howe Annex workshop. The main design objective was to develop a more sustainable method for building the form into which the concrete would be poured, using primarily lumber.

The bio-sand filter system consists of a concrete basin to hold a sand column which removes bacteria by various physical and organic processes. This more sustainable solution is easier to transport, less expensive, easier to construct and reusable multiple times.

The region around the schools is made of steep mountains and volcanoes, thus highly prone to devastating mud slides. A massive slide triggered by Hurricane Stan in 2005 killed about 2,000 area residents, burying them alive. Poverty is rampant and visible as well.

By partnering with PaP, the EWB team lived like the area residents for the most part. The accommodations consisted of a small house with two floors connected by very steep steps. Rooms are small, cramped and overcrowded and bathroom facilities conjoin toilet water and shower water in the drain. Beds are scattered on the floor haphazardly and 6-8 students shared a single room.

When in Guatemala, the club procured materials it needed for the project from local sources recommended by the NGO liaison.

Untreated water filters through several layers of rock, fine sand and coarse aggregate. Sand and aggregate must first be washed repeatedly until runoff is clear. The large aggregate must be bleached.

“Our days were pretty long with breakfast at about 6 a.m. and getting everyone ready for the day. We worked until sundown at about 7 p.m. So, we didn’t do much for entertainment but relax, make plans for the next day and rehash comical moments from the past 24 hours…and play Jenga,” said Professor Jon Erickson, the faculty liaison of EWB.

The project was turned over to an NGO in-country liaison, whose task was to monitor the system over the next 30 days while the filter built up a bio-layer that keeps out harmful bacteria but allows harmless bacteria to run through.

If all works out as planned, the 250 students at each of the two schools will be able to regularly drink clean water.