Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Engineering students bring water to Bolivian village

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 36 - July 25, 1996

A village of 750 people in the mountains of Bolivia soon will have clean drinking water and a sanitary septic system for the first time, thanks to a group of Virginia Tech engineering students and the Virginia Section of Water for People (WFP).

In June, four Tech civil-engineering graduate students--Steve Brauner, Vickie Burris, Sudhir Murthy, and Steve Starbuck--traveled to the Bolivian village of Vilomilla, 20 miles from the city of Cochabamba, to design and help construct a community bath-house.

"The area is like a dustbowl, with mountains all around," said Brauner, a Ph.D. candidate specializing in hydrosystems engineering. The villagers had one common tank to store water during dry seasons and they sometimes used water trapped in agricultural ditches for drinking.

The river that runs near Vilomilla is dry during the winter months, said Murthy, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering. However, underneath the riverbed is a good groundwater supply.

The groundwater is the source for a new water-distribution system designed and constructed by the WFP Virginia section, which initiated the Bolivian project and helped the villagers lay a pipeline from the groundwater source to the bath-house site. The goal of the WFP, a branch of the American Water Works Association, is to advance the development of sustainable drinking-water supplies among people in need throughout the world.

The state WFP section invited the Tech students, who had formed a Blacksburg chapter, to design and help construct a bath-house and septic system.

Through benefit concerts, sports tournaments, and other efforts, the students and their faculty advisor, Nancy Love, an assistant professor of civil engineering, raised $3,000 for the Bolivian project. The College of Engineering made a contribution of $3,000 from its enrichment and international programs funds, and the state WFP section donated another $1,500.

Joining in the project were Trina Mastran, an engineer for the County of Augusta and a member of the Virginia WFP section, as well as three students and a faculty member from the Universidad Mayor de San Simon (UMSS). Members of APSAR, a Bolivian organization that promotes better health in the country's rural areas, served as local sponsors and contacts for the Virginia Tech group.

Before the trip, the Tech students and Mastran communicated with students and faculty members from UMSS and APSAR via fax and electronic mail to begin preliminary design of the bath-house and septic system. During their two-week stay in Vilomilla, the four Tech students and Trina Mastran completed the design of the bath-house and began its construction.

The residents of Vilomilla provided most of the labor. "The people there want potable water so badly, they'll work hard to get it for themselves and their children," Brauner said.

Before the WFP project began, Vilomilla had one community latrine with no running water or septic system.

The students designed a bath-house with two showers, five toilets, one urinal, a hand-washing sink, and two sinks for washing clothes. They estimate the total cost of materials for the bath-house and its septic system at about $2,500.

By the time the Tech students left Vilomilla, the bath-house foundation and most of the walls were constructed near the school and community center, and excavation of the septic system was completed. The villagers and students from San Simon will finish installing the fixtures according to the students' design.

The residents of Vilomilla also formed a water board to manage their new running-water source and settle any disputes that might arise, Brauner said. "The villagers have had water wars, like we used to have out West. They're very serious about managing and protecting what water they have."

The Tech students plan to return to Bolivia to inspect the completed Vilomilla project and, they hope, to work on similar projects in other villages. In fact, they've already drawn up plans for a solar-powered hot-water system for use in bath-houses.

"We learned a great deal during our two weeks in Bolivia," Murthy said. The students cite international project management, cultural sensitivity, dealing with foreign engineers and bureaucracies--and constructing a septic system--as a few of the skills they developed.

"The project in Bolivia has broadened my perspective on what course my career should take," Starbuck said.