March 16, 2006

C.U. Goes to Honduras

Print More

Over 20 Cornell engineering students and professors traveled to Honduras in January to fill the technology void in the nation’s water treatment. The two week trip was just part of a continuing effort by Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) to transfer new water treatment technology to a country where current water systems could mean brown water from the tap.

Student participants in the Honduras Water Treatment Project, led by Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk, civil and environmental engineering, presented their experiences and achievements Wednesday in Hollister Hall. The group designs treatment systems at Cornell and then transfers the technology to communities in Honduras.

“The rewarding piece about this project is that it’s a real project,” Weber-Shirk said in an interview. “We have all the resources from Cornell, including its bright students, and we’re tackling a project that no one is tackling.”

Dan Smith ’07 has been involved with the program for one year. He will travel to Honduras this summer to work in Ojajona, a small town in the southern region of the country. In Honduras, students take on roles as researchers, field engineers and traveling salesman for clean water, Smith said.

Students are working with local authorities and managers to make sure that the project is effective. Between communicating with local water boards to buying supplies using broken Spanish, this can be quite a task. But the engineering students are handling this difficult situation – building gravity-fed water systems without electricity in Honduras’ mountainous landscape.

“These systems have to function, and that’s the bottom line,” Smith said. “It’s only going to be sustainable if there’s a connection to the people in the community.”

Weber-Shirk attributes the success of the program to the students’ willingness to work within the limitations of the project, such as unreliable electricity sources in Honduras.

“There are solutions to just about everything; it means being creative and sometimes developing new technologies,” he said.

Shada El-Sharif grad, who is studying environmental water resource systems, said that studentS use local resources, such as corrugated roofing material, to build the water treatment systems.

“We want the Hondurans to be able to maintain them after the Cornell students return home,” she said.

Roslyn Odum grad was a member of the first team to travel to Honduras last year. During her trip she watched Hondurans fix PVC pipe with banana leaves.

“We knew we had to use local materials, keep it simple and make it work,” she said. Construction of the plant took five months. When it was finished, it ran with up to 95 percent efficiency.

“It was an optimistic trip,” Odum said.

El-Sharif hopes that engineering students will get excited about making a difference.

“The work you do in class can have a real impact on people,” she said. “We live in such a privileged place that its easy to take what we have for granted. There are a large number of people in this world that don’t have those luxuries. This project is really eye opening.”

These students have become involved in the project by joining ESW or taking a class for credit. ESW, founded at Cornell in 2001, has expanded to over 30 campuses nationwide; the organization takes on global issues, including safe drinking water and energy needs.

Archived article by Hailey Wilmer
Sun Contributor