Skip to main content

NCSU Engineers Without Borders assess water needs in Mayan village

Eight students from NCSU’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) spent their Spring Break in Guatemala to begin a water supply project for a rural village. The team spent their evenings with host families in the city of San Cristobal, but every morning they made the bumpy 45-minute ride to the small rural Mayan village of Caserio Panhux.

The EWB team found several springs used by community members to be contaminated with human and animal waste.

Community members spend at least two hours a day walking to remote, and sometimes contaminated, springs to wash clothes and collect water for their families. After repeated attempts to obtain help from the local government, the community reached out to EWB. The original request included road expansion, building a community center, and access to clean water. “There were three things they asked for, but we quickly saw that water was the biggest need,” says Jonathan Miller, a PhD. student from the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. Miller spent five years teaching in Guatemala before returning to graduate school. His experience led him to civil engineering after seeing the lack of infrastructure in much of the country. Miller acted as the EWB team’s mentor on this assessment trip.

During the assessment trip, EWB team members interviewed families to better understand their water needs.

“After a day of meetings with community leaders, including a women’s group that is active in organizing the community, we made a point of visiting with every one of the 54 families. We walked to every single house,” reports Tabitha Benbow, a Senior in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and one of two project managers on the EWB team. “Often it was muddy, very steep, and there was not much of a path. We were not sure how we would be received, but the families were welcoming and grateful.” The team interviewed each family regarding their water needs. “From my five years in Guatemala, I saw a lot of projects, and the ones that were successful were the ones that were humanized,” Miller notes. “The ones where participants took the time to understand the people, to become friends so that it’s not just something we’re giving them, but we’re doing this with them. Doing community outreach is an important part of any engineering project. Even here in the U.S. we have to spend lots of time conducting community meetings and understanding the politics.”

The team is working closely with CeCEP (Centro Comunitario Educativo Polomchi) a local non-governmental organization (NGO). CeCEP provided the team with monthly rainfall data. “Using the rainfall data, information on water demand that we had gathered from the families, along with the size of the available water catchment systems, we made projections of water availability,” Benbow explains. The team concluded that for most of the families, a 2500 liter storage system would provide 100% of their water needs from May through December, and about 45% of the need would be supplemented by the system from December through April.

Using a mass balance approach for determining how much water comes in and out over time, the team projected water needs for the community for a 3 year span. These findings were integral to determining storage tank sizes which are one of the largest costs of the catchment systems.

The team will return to Guatemala three more times, with the goal of building 18 rainwater catchment systems on each trip. Carter Rucker, a Junior in Civil Engineering ,hopes to be able to return one more time. “I learned a lot about the culture in that part of the world, and seeing the differences between the services and infrastructure available in the City of San Cristobal versus the village was interesting,” Rucker observed.

The eight members of the NCSU EWB team pictured left to right are Matthew Benbow, Florian Vorleiter, Tabitha Benbow, Prayag Pershad, Sarah McConnell, Carter Rucker, Julia O’Brien, and Jonathan Miller.

The team includes 20 members total, though only seven made this trip. “The group includes members from many departments in the College of Engineering and includes several freshman who will carry forward with the knowledge that’s been gained,” Miller says.