In Kolunje, a remote village of 7,200 in southwest Kenya, survival and progress come down to one basic need: clean water.
In the past, residents there were forced to rely on intermittent streams and hand-dug wells for drinking water. These unprotected water sources often carry waterborne illnesses such as cholera and typhoid, which in many cases result in hospitalization.
And it’s not just health impacts that hurt residents. Lack of sanitary water is also a productivity and gender issue holding the community back. Women and children typically spend up to three hours daily obtaining water, time they could be spending in school or working.
The Rutgers University chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA) traveled to Kolunje to tackle the problem, but it wasn’t going to be easy. To bring clean water to the community, the team would have to deal with complex challenges and delays over the course of several years.
Searching for a Water Source
From the outset, when Rutgers EWB-USA first partnered with Endevelu Community Development Services (ECODS) on the project in 2009, engineers and hydrogeologists had trouble even finding groundwater.
When they drilled down and couldn’t find water, it was really discouraging,” says Supraja Kumar, a Rutgers mechanical engineer senior and project lead.
In 2014, the team changed its focus to building a rainwater catchment system, but it wasn’t a sustainable solution.
“Rainfall isn’t consistent year-round, so we went back to the initial goal of borehole development to provide a stable water source,” Kumar says.
According to Evan Lutz, an environmental engineering senior who’s also a project lead, 2018 was a make or break year. For the prior year and a half, Rutgers wouldn’t approve travel to the region due to political instability, putting the entire project at risk.
“It was a defining moment for the project,” he says. “If the borehole we drilled was dry again, the project might have closed entirely, leaving the community with just the rainwater catchment system.”
In August 2018, as we were not able to travel in 2017. A team of five Rutgers students and two hydrogeologists traveled to Kolunje to give the borehole concept another shot. Engineering tests determined a grid of points that could possibly yield water, but as with many field projects, the reality was slightly more complicated.
“What they encountered in the soil and rock structures wasn’t what the hydrogeologists expected,” says Lutz. “Finding water was definitely going to require some luck as well as technical skill.”
The Moment of Truth
Drilling started with a 10-inch diameter borehole located on the grounds of a local school. At first the team’s prospects for finding water didn’t look good.
“We were concerned, because testing indicated we should have hit water at 90 meters or so,” says Kumar, adding that, by 100 m depth, they still hadn’t reached the water table. “We weren’t even really sure if water was there at all.”
On the third day, their luck changed. The drillers hit water at 117 m, a moment Kumar and Lutz describe as the climax of the trip. “Every day the school kids would come to watch, because they had never seen this type of equipment before,” Kumar says. “Once we hit water we got this giant crowd of people.”
The engineering students and hydrogeologists completed development of the borehole to a depth of 137 m, finishing it with steel casing and gravel pack to ensure stability. The team also used an In-Situ water level meter tape to test changing water levels during the 24- hour pump test. Today, the borehole provides enough water for nearly three times the community’s needs.
Future plans in Kolunje center on installing an electric pump, as well as exploring the possibility of piping water to local residents. As they prepare for their postgrad life, the engineering students say their experience with EWB-USA in Kenya was both humbling and rewarding.
“It’s a perfect marriage of helping people out and learning,” says Lutz. “You’re not only improving your own knowledge, you’re improving the quality of life for other people.”
Special thanks to project sponsors Bechtel, Boeing and Lockheed Martin
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