Fundraiser on March 12 Will Help U.Va. Students Complete Clean Water Project in Africa

February 26, 2010
Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

February 26, 2010 — Moving clean water from a mountaintop spring in West Africa to a village located six miles away requires quality engineering. It also requires dedication.  

University of Virginia students, with the support of the Charlottesville Rotary Club, have traveled to Wum in western Cameroon, Africa, for the past three years to help people in the region build a sustainable clean-water system.

The Rotary Clubs of Charlottesville, Blue Ridge and Albemarle will host a fundraising dinner and auction on March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville to support completion of the project.  

Once completed, the system and its six-mile pipeline will supply water to Wum's 50,000 residents and help to prevent water-borne diseases such as dysentery and typhus. In the village of Wum alone, the local health department reports approximately 240 deaths annually from waterborne diseases.

Wum is an example of a much larger water scarcity problem in developing regions. On a global scale, the World Health Organization estimates nearly one-fifth of the world's population – about 1.2 billion people – live in regions where water is scarce.

Andres Clarens, assistant professor of environmental and water resources engineering and faculty adviser of U.Va.'s independent Engineering Students Without Borders group, which will coordinate students' work in Wum this summer, said interest in the project is high.

"One of the great things about a project like this is that it provides an opportunity for students to learn, firsthand, about the nuances and challenges of international development work," he said.

Currently, Jonathan Mellor, a civil engineering Ph.D. student, Tyler Milne, a third-year chemical engineering student; and Kate Villars, fourth-year civil engineering student and president of the  U.Va. Engineering Students Without Borders group  are helping to organize the project.

"It is my hope that through projects such Water for Wum the University can support the efforts of dedicated students who want to realize their capacity for action by applying their skills to a real world problem," said Villars. "It is only through real world challenges that students can move beyond the purely technical aspects of their work to discover the important underlying political, economic, and cultural contexts that define and shape their work."

Over the past three years, eight U.Va. students from the Engineering School, McIntire School of Commerce and College of Arts & Sciences have worked on the project.

Students first signed on to the project in 2007 after Thomas Dunnells, a Rotary Charlottesville member and former Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Cameroon for two years, presented the project to engineering professor Dana Elzey, faculty adviser for the Engineering in Context program.

The students have since designed a water storage system and completed data analysis to ensure clean water delivery. They are in the process of helping villagers complete a design for capping the springs to prevent cattle from contaminating the water and will be traveling to Cameroon in June to finish the pipeline.

To create a sustainable system, it has been important for students and project organizers to work closely with Wum's residents and tribal elders.

Dunnells recalled the residents' dedication to the project in his account of 3,800 villagers digging a 2.3-mile ditch in just five hours.  

"The ditch was dug primarily by the women, which is common practice in their culture," Dunnells said. "When I asked them why they were so dedicated, they said that clean water is essential for their village, not only for themselves but for the survival of their children."

The Rotary Club of Charlottesville and U.Va. engineers have established a partnership with the Rotary Club of Bamenda, Cameroon, and hold regular teleconferences with the town elders and local technicians who will provide labor and logistics support.

Tickets for the dinner are $75, with sponsorships available. If you are interested in attending the dinner, learning more about this project or making a donation, contact Dunnells at 434-242-6918 or

— By Zak Richards