In Service to Others

March/April 2017

NSPE Today
In Service to Others

BY ADDIE MAYFIELD

BETH NEWMAN WYNN, MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
FROM LEFT: NSPE MEMBER DENNIS TRUAX, P.E., F.NSPE, SHAKES HANDS WITH VILLAGERS; MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS HELP CLEAR A DRILL SITE
CREDIT: BETH NEWMAN WYNN, MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
 

Volunteers from the Mississippi State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA step onto a largely rural and undeveloped stretch of African terrain. Despite the 17-hour flight and being far removed from all the familiar amenities of home, they are excited. The chapter has returned once again, hopeful in their plans to aid the Simwatachela Chiefdom.

Since 2013, the students and mentors of MSU EWB have made annual trips to the chiefdom, located in southern Zambia, to address extreme water scarcity in the region. The efforts to engineer solutions have helped secure life-sustaining resources and a higher quality of life for the more than 300 villages within Simwatachela.

EWB-USA, a nonprofit organization established in 2002, supports community-driven development programs worldwide by collaborating with local partners to design and implement sustainable engineering projects. Professionals and students from a variety of fields including engineering, public health, and business make up the growing membership. Currently, 286 EWB-USA chapters are engaged in nearly 700 projects in more than 40 developing countries.

At Mississippi State University, NSPE member Dennis Truax, P.E., F.NSPE, is the chapter’s faculty adviser. The civil and environmental engineering department head has traveled to Zambia each summer since 2013. NSPE member William Mitchell, P.E., vice president of multidisciplinary consulting engineering firm Brown, Mitchell, and Alexander, is an alum and the chapter’s professional advisor. He has twice made the journey, with another trip planned this summer for the final assessment.

“The fundamental role of an engineer in society is to be of service to others by protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” says Truax. “As professionals, we can and should help at the local and state levels. However, we should also recognize our skills and their value to people around the world and facilitate opportunities that benefit the international community as well.”

Following the project selection and initial assessment trip, MSU EWB has continued its mission to develop innovative solutions that fit within Simwatachela’s current technical and economic structure. Members of the organization, which is open to all students, collaborate throughout each academic year on potential plans to provide clean water. The strategies are then executed during the subsequent summer treks. Throughout the multiyear project, over 125 students have been involved—22 of which participated in one or more of the four total trips.

According to William Mitchell, “the greatest lesson that MSU students gain from EWB is the sense that we can make a difference on a global level.”

In addition to assisting the team with complex engineering issues and logistics, the Gulfport, Mississippi, native also has contributed significant support for project expenses. Although MSU EWB hosts annual fundraisers and requires each volunteer to contribute toward his or her participation, private support like Mitchell’s is essential to the on-site operations. For example, each well costs $7,500.

“Experiencing the critical need in the Simwatachela area convinced me to make a personal commitment to assist with the funding of this program,” says Mitchell. “It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my engineering career to help these villagers obtain access to clean water.”

Simwatachela’s extreme shortage of satisfactory water sources produces a multitude of issues, including forcing occupants to travel long distances while toting containers. Alternatively, many villages improvise with shallow, hand-dug reservoirs that collect water during the rainy season, few of which supply enough water to sustain local populations, much less agricultural production. During the dry season, the unlined pools become stagnant, disease-ridden pits contaminated further by rodents and livestock.

“The availability of water changes every aspect of [villagers’] lives,” explains Emily Farrar, senior civil engineering major and former MSU EWB chapter president. “It is hard for the members of the community to further themselves through education when they spend half a day or more walking for water, or cannot receive a teacher due to the lack of a clean water source.”

Collectively, MSU EWB’s ongoing project has resulted in the establishment of nine new and accessible hand-pump wells and the restoration of several existing inoperable pumps. During the trips, teams also educated local villages on pump maintenance and water quality testing practices.

Additionally, the group has worked with the Simwatachela Sustainable Agriculture and Arts Program, a nonprofit organization that has supported youth and adult education programs in areas such as sports and hygiene, and has helped develop an animal husbandry program. These efforts are reinforcing the chiefdom’s capacity to sustainably meet its basic human needs for years to come.

“There is no recognition in this work,” says Truax. “Students don’t get class credit for their efforts or the time they put in—it’s just a desire to uphold our social responsibilities.”

BETH NEWMAN WYNN, MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
FROM LEFT: LOCAL WOMEN HAUL WATER; A SIMWATACHELA VILLAGE IS SHOWN AT NIGHT.
CREDIT: BETH NEWMAN WYNN, MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
 

Thirst, malnutrition, and disease seemed inevitable for the villages of Simwatachela. Today, however, the chiefdom is combating water scarcity and its related concerns thanks to the help of MSU EWB. And for the chapter participants, the impacts of the project have come full circle.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students,” says Farrar, recognizing the benefits that she and other team members gained through their participation. “It is an enormous amount of responsibility and a challenging learning experience.” Farrar has participated in two of the four annual trips to Zambia, serving as the 2016 project coordinator.

In addition to gaining real-world experience in planning and designing engineering projects, students learn to work through the unexpected circumstances that can arise during on-site implementations. The team members also collaborate on written reports and national presentations of their work.

According to Truax, “as students are encouraged to go beyond what they consider to be their limitations, face uncomfortable situations, and learn to respect and work in other cultures, they find they are able to reach goals previously thought impossible—a skill they will carry with them throughout their lives.”

Without MSU EWB’s efforts, the Simwatachela water supply would continue to be unreliable. Instead, community members are able to experience hope through the newly secured sources for clean water, which also increase villages’ eligibility for additional government and humanitarian assistance. The additional wells provide more than water alone; they provide opportunities for progress.

“There is a considerable world outside the US, and the potential impact we can have in improving the lives of others is significant,” says Truax. “People need our help as engineers and as a country…. There is ultimately an endless need to continue our outreach.”

This article was adapted from one in the 2016 Mississippi State University Foundation annual report.

Summary of Work

Drinking Water Efforts
  • 15 sites assessed;
  • 9 wells installed, with another 9 dry holes drilled;
  • 2 wells repaired;
  • 11 wells for which water quality was evaluated;
  • About 10,000 people provided clean, sustainable drinking water 12 months of the year;
  • About half of the Simwatachela chiefdom impacted directly or indirectly by this project.
Additional Initiatives
  • Established an animal husbandry program using goats and chickens;
  • Supported a hygiene program with toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap;
  • Developed a sports education program (soccer);
  • Supported a teaching program (including instructional supplies and books);
  • Supported an arts- and craftsbased entrepreneurial program by delivering supplies and transporting products to market.