SEAS Students and Serendipity Work to Bring Water to Wum

Sept. 18, 2007 -- Almost 40 years in the making, it is as if this project — involving University of Virginia engineering students, a United Nations representative and a retired IBM executive — were meant to happen.

It all began in the early 1960s, when a young U.Va. graduate and Peace Corps volunteer from New York named Tom Dunnells arrived in Cameroon to teach chemistry and physics to local teenagers. He took note of an especially determined and talented 15-year old student named Sammy Buo, who, years later, would look Dunnells up in New York for a ride from the airport to the Port Authority. Decades passed, and the men lost contact — until 2003, when Dunnells, then a senior health care consultant for IBM, received a chance second phone call from Buo, who had become the director of the Africa II Division of the Department of Political Affairs for the United Nations.

The two friends quickly reconnected, discussing everything from families to children to careers to water problems in the Cameroonian town of Wum. Their rich, shared history would culminate in a serendipitous project when, in the spring of 2007, Dunnells, now a Charlottesville resident, would happen upon an issue of The Cavalier Daily in which he would read about U.Va. engineering students’ water filtration efforts in Tourou, Cameroon. At this moment, it was Dunnells who would reach for the phone to call Buo with an idea — Why not propose a student project in which engineering undergraduates could fix the water situation in Buo’s native village of Aghem?

“How these perhaps unlikely collaborators found each other to work on bringing clean water to the Aghem village is quite an extraordinary story,” says Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science and engineering and director of the newly formed International Programs Office at U.Va.’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Tom and Sammy have created a wonderful opportunity for our students to bring their engineering talent to a problem of real-world proportions in assessing and enhancing the water system in this village.”

Samantha “Sam” Rowell, a fourth-year civil engineering major, first heard about the Wum Water Project as part of her spring 2007 "Engineering in Context" course, designed to expose students to real-world engineering problems and their solutions. “Tom Dunnells and Sammy Buo's brother, Timmy, and the honorable Chief Buhmbi came to the class and described the problems that the Wum people were having as a result of a stalled water filtration and distribution project,” she said. “It seemed unthinkable to me that there were people who were dying because of a lack of potable water. It changed my whole perspective, and I wanted to help.”

Rowell began with research. According to records and accounts from Wum inhabitants, the project to bring clean water to Wum began in 1996, when the Cameroonian government collaborated with the villages in Wum, Swiss funding agency Helvetas and contractors to filter and distribute water. In 2000, however, funds ran out and the project stalled. Construction was left unfinished, and the people of Wum were left to gather water as they had for years before — by collecting it from free-standing sources and from the centralized standpipes provided by the government. The problem? The free-standing water sources are contaminated, and the standpipes — in addition to being located about a mile away from the average Aghem inhabitant’s home — are often turned off because the operating cost is too high to sustain. As a result, approximately 240 Aghem villagers die each year as a result of water-borne illnesses.

“This situation contains all of the elements of an Engineering in Context project,” says Elzey. “It is an engineering problem that also presents cultural, geographical and contextual challenges. With that combination, Samantha needed a team with a variety of expertise.”

In order to form a team that would provide the required perspectives, Rowell turned to Brooke L. Yamakoshi (Civil Engineering ’06, Systems Engineering ’09), who had led, and continues to be involved with, the Tourou water filtration project. Similar to Yamakoshi’s project, the Wum Water Project would involve filtration and sustainability components; however, this project would also address distribution on a large scale — the ultimate goal being to provide clean water to 30,000 to 35,000 people in the village of Aghem. With Yamakoshi’s help — and that of Rowell’s technical adviser, civil engineering professor Jim Smith — her team was in place by the end of the spring 2007 semester: Christina L. Blum (Mechanical Engineering ’08), Kelly K. Schumann (Systems Engineering ’09), Meredyth M. Gilmore (Economics ’09) and Nellie R. Dunderdale (Foreign Affairs, Anthropology ’09).

Rowell then prepared to visit Aghem to identify the scope of the Wum Water Project — to look over the original project design, investigate what had been completed and get a concrete sense of what remained to be done and assess how to do it. Buo picked Rowell up from the airport and acted as her cultural liaison, introducing her to members of the Wum Water Project Committee, Wum representatives to the Cameroonian government and Chief Buhmbi of Aghem.

“We were very well received,” Rowell recalls, “but the cultural differences were readily apparent. It immediately became clear that educating the Aghem villagers about water contamination was going to be necessary if the project were to succeed.”

Investigating the project’s current status was time-consuming and labor-intensive. Located about 14 miles from Aghem at the top of a hill, the catchment site can only be reached by foot. Rowell found that, as currently arranged, the catchment diverts water from three downhill streams to a sedimentation tank. From this tank, gravity aids the water’s transport through 9-centimeter PVC pipes to the first filtration tank and then to a second filtration tank equipped with three filtration layers. This, however, is where the project ends — six miles away from the village of Aghem.

In Rowell’s estimation, the project design is workable: “There are no villages at the top of the mountain, so the streams that feed into this system are uncontaminated. In addition, the contractors involved in the first phase of this project used white stone — a local material that is readily available — so that helps with sustainability.” Her concerns? “I need to investigate the approximate per-person water usage for the peoples of Aghem — 9-centimenter PVC pipe might not be sufficient for the people’s needs.” There is also the obvious distance problem. The clean water needs to be piped the remaining six miles to Aghem and distributed to a variety of standpipes that will need to be constructed in close proximity to the villagers’ houses.

Rowell and her team are up to the challenge. The start of the fall semester marked the beginning of weekly team meetings, wherein project tasks are distributed and status is discussed. Currently, team members are researching design options, potential contractors, funding sources and availability of materials.

“The methodical way in which Engineering in Context teams approach global problems is phenomenal,” says Engineering School dean James H. Aylor. “The Wum Water Project is an example of what U.Va. engineering students and faculty strive to do each day: use their expertise to improve something in some way — leaving things better than they found them.”

Rowell’s team defines success as providing the Aghem  community with a sustainable, working water filtration and distribution system — completing what was started more than a decade ago — within a two-year time frame. Rowell plans to return to Aghem in the summer of 2008, after she graduates, to help implement the team’s fully conceptualized design.

“[The Engineering School] has helped me adopt a broader world view,” she says. “It is my responsibility to use my engineering skills to make people’s lives a little better, a little bit easier.”