U.Va. Engineering Students Build Water-Purification System in South Africa

Eric L. Harshfield and Ana Jemec work together at a table

Eric L. Harshfield and Ana Jemec

September 26, 2008 — Engineers strive to make the world a better place, and many students in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science get an early start with service projects that support communities abroad.

Two such students are Ana Jemec and Eric L. Harshfield. With the aid of a Davis Projects for Peace award, these fourth-year chemical engineering students spent their summer building a water purification system in the region of Venda in South Africa.

Neither student is a novice to world travel. Jemec was raised in South Carolina but frequently visits extended family in Slovenia, where she was born. Harshfield, raised in Roanoke, spent the summer of 2007 participating in a study-abroad class with environmental science professor Robert Swap.

During that class, Harshfield visited the University of Venda in South Africa, where he met professors in the microbiology department who were researching traditional healing with medicinal plants from the region.

"I found that fascinating and stayed after the study-abroad class was over to learn more," he said. "And I began thinking about how I could apply my chemical engineering knowledge to benefit the people there."

Jemec had a childhood friend from South Africa and an interest in public health. "I had wanted to do a development project there for a long time," she said. "Eric and I had similar goals and we began to look around for funding."

The water system in Venda became the focus for their project.

"The water in Venda is piped from the mountains to people's homes, but it is contaminated with microorganisms, so water-borne disease and digestive problems are common there," Harshfield said. "Environmental scientists were studying the diseases, but the community lacked the resources to deal with the contamination problems."

The $10,000 Davis Project for Peace award allowed them to build a sustainable slow- sand filtration system using local materials.

The awards are made possible by Kathryn Wasserman Davis, an internationalist and philanthropist. The program funds 100 grassroots projects a year that are judged to be the most promising and capable of implementation in a summer. The students also received mentoring and financial support from the Center for Global Health, the Center for Undergraduate Excellence and the Institute for Practical Ethics.

Their solution was to create a bed of gravel and sand through which the water has to travel before it is piped to area homes. As a biological layer builds up on top of this bed, it causes the microorganisms to break down and the water is cleansed of contaminants by the time it flows through the bed and is piped to the 300 homes in a village near Venda's main town, Thohoyandou.

"Because we worked with local materials, we think this solution will be useful for other villages in the area as well," Jemec said.

As part of the project, Jemec and Harshfield conducted community seminars on the proper use and preservation of water to ensure continued use of the system. In addition, students from the University of Venda worked with them and will provide ongoing assistance to community members in maintaining the system.

Their U.Va. education came in handy in many ways. "Our engineering background gave us the good problem-solving skills that we needed to organize everything," Jemec said. "And, as is often the case, communication was key."

In fact, the students found that building the system was the easiest part of the process.

"We started by meeting with the chief and elders and community leaders, and gave community presentations and made sure everything was set up and ready to go before we started the construction," Jemec said.

Harshfield said that respecting the local culture and protocol was key.

"You have to come up with a solution that will work in that community and you have to respectfully get the community on board or it will never work, no matter how good a solution your idea might be," he said.

"It was amazing," Jemec said. "Everyone was so fantastic and so happy that we were there trying to do something for them. We wound up working a lot with the students at the University of Venda and, with us there initiating the project and helping catalyze it, it all came together really well."

Both students are back at U.Va. and working on their thesis project, which will be about their project in Venda. As for the future, Jemec sees a master's in public health or medical school, as well as continued travel abroad. Harshfield also intends to pursue a master's in public health and hopes to return to South Africa to continue work in the area.

"This project took a lot of organizing and planning," Harshfield said. "We are very grateful for the support that we received at U.Va. and at the University of Venda. It was that collaboration that made what we accomplished possible. "

— By Josie Loyd

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