Engineers Without Borders partners with Namutamba community in Uganda

Anthony Paiva, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, tested the water quality near one of the Namutamba community's water sources in central Uganda. Credit: Kyle PelegrinAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Undergraduate students from the Penn State chapter of Engineers Without Borders have launched a collaboration with the Namutamba community in Uganda to improve the community’s access to potable water.

Under the mentorship of John Regan, professor of environmental engineering, and Brian Thiede, assistant professor of rural sociology, sociology and demography in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the group signed a five-year partnership agreement with the community and the Mityana Rotary Club, the local branch of the American nonprofit group.

“The goal of this first trip was to lay the groundwork for a long-term partnership with the Namutamba community, as well as commence work aiding the community with water security,” said Noelle Ihanainen, a senior studying environmental systems engineering and president of Penn State’s Engineers Without Borders.

The students who participated in this trip were Ihanainen; Kyle Pelegrin, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering; Grant Bonas, a junior majoring in electrical engineering; Maria Teresa Baldrich, a senior majoring in community, environment and development; Jacob Halle, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering; Gwen Loaec, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering; Anthony Paiva, a senior majoring in electrical engineering; and Mac Seidel, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering.

The students initially connected with the community through Engineers Without Borders’ volunteer website. The website lists ongoing projects in communities throughout the world, and chapters of Engineers Without Borders can apply to participate in the projects. The five-year partnership agreement between Penn State’s chapter and the Namutamba community officially finalized the students’ commitment to help with the community’s water security.

The Namutamba community consists of about 3,900 members in 796 households, but the region as a whole does not have the infrastructure nor the resources in place to maintain a consistent water supply.

“The region experiences seasons that are dry and wet, and water is quite limited during the dry season,” Ihanainen said.

During their trip, the students learned that even during the wet season, when water is more available, it is not always safe.

“During our first meeting with the community, children from the local school shared a poem that vividly described how they often miss school to collect water or because they’re sick from drinking the water,” said Pelegrin, who also serves as the program’s project lead in Penn State’s Engineers Without Borders.

The group spent two days visiting three of the community’s current water sources where they tested the water quality. They will use these tests as a baseline to track improvement in water quality throughout their project. With the help of James Ssonko, the local district water engineer, the students met with Henry Kiggundu, a senior hydrogeologist, who helped coordinate a hydrogeological survey to determine if there was water underground.

“This survey luckily determined water to be located roughly 60 meters underground during Namutamba’s dry season,” Pelegrin said.

The result determined the team’s plan moving forward. They will drill a borehole down to the source, install a pump to extract the groundwater and distribute it to the community through underground piping where it can then be stored in an elevated tank.

“We were excited not only to get positive results for our water security plans but also to meet members of the community and learn more about their lives,” Pelegrin said. “We developed engineering and international skills, and we had the opportunity to grow as individuals.”

Now, the team members are drafting their technical design for the system, educating new chapter members and fundraising to support their future work. They plan to return to Uganda after their finals in May 2020 to implement the next steps in the project.

Last Updated September 30, 2019