Feature Stories

Helping the World Become a Better Place: Engineers Without Borders

Bryce Anzelmo, president of the NJIT Chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and member Melissa Valoura

NJIT students have an ongoing relationship with Haiti through the Engineering Without Borders chapter.  In light of the Jan 12, 2010, magnitude 7.0 earthquake the struck Haiti, NJIT community members are encouraged to donate to the relief funds of The American Red Cross or Yele Haiti

A group of NJIT students is working hard to help an impoverished village in Haiti get clean drinking water.  As it is now, the villagers drink from polluted water that not only makes adults ill but contributes to Haiti’s high infant mortality rate.

The students belong to the NJIT chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a national humanitarian group whose chapters work on projects that improve the lives of people living in developing countries.  The NJIT chapter, formed last year, is helping the villagers Milot, Haiti, build thousands of bio-sand filters that purify drinking water.  Most villages in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, lack running water.  Villagers must carry buckets to local streams and carry the water home.  

In January of 2009, the NJIT students will travel to Milot and teach the villagers how to build and maintain the bio-sand filters. Once built, the villagers will keep the  filters in their homes.  A biological layer in the filter catches more than 95 percent of the water’s pathogens, making the water safe to drink.  The students are raising money to pay for the supplies needed to build the four-foot high filters, whose simple main ingredients are concrete, sand and gravel.

The students began working on the water project for Milot in the fall of 2007.  Fifteen students belong to the group, which has already visited Milot twice to assess its water problem. During its upcoming January trip to Haiti, the students intend to work with the villagers to mass produce the bio-sand filters.    

In this interview, Bryce Anzelmo, a mechanical engineering major who is president of the NJIT Chapter of Engineers Without Borders, talks about the group’s efforts to bring clean drinking water to the village of Milot.


Can you start by giving an update on the project?
We now have a Haitian student constructing 25 bio-sand filters, which will be put in selected households.  He is using locally available materials such as concrete, sand and gravel, to construct the filter, which when filled with sand and water, weighs 300 pounds.   It’s best to build the filters locally and place them in houses throughout Milot.  But ultimately our plan is to establish a filter production center, where the villagers will build the filters themselves.

And that’s what you’ll focus on during your January trip to Milot?
That’s when we’ll install the 25 filters now being made by the Haitian student.  We’ll also educate the locals on how the filters work as well how to maintain them. We will then buy the supplies for the next batch of filters that the villagers will make.  They’ll have that batch finished by the time we return to Haiti during spring break. That’s our plan.

How many filters will be needed? How big is the village? Will each house get one? 
The village of Milot has about 30,000 people, with an average family size of eight people. For every family to have clean water, we estimate that 3,500 filters will need to be made. We’ll need to buy supplies such as are sand, gravel, cement, sieves, wheelbarrow and tools. We hope we can raise enough money to fund the whole project from start to finish.

How exactly does the filter work?
The bio-sand filter works on a simple technology.  You keep the filter in your house, and you pour water into its top.  A sand filter in the center of the filter purifies the dirty water. Cleaned water then comes out of a tube in the front of the filter. The water comes out cleaner right away, but for the filter to be most effective, you should use it continually for two weeks. That’s because after two weeks a biological layer develops inside the sand filter. That bacteria layer catches 95%-99% of all pathogens in the water.  That will prevent them from growing ill from the water and immeasurably improve the quality of their lives.

How far must the villagers walk to get their water? Is it a local stream they drink from?
The people of Milot have to walk anywhere from a few hundred feet to upwards of a mile one way to a water source. The women of Milot carry jugs to the nearest water supply and then carry the filled buckets atop their heads. The water comes from streams and wells. People clean clothes, bathe, go to the bathroom and dump their garbage upstream and then drink the water downstream.  Based on the water tests we conducted, the only water supplied that is clean is at the hospital well.

Are the Haitians grateful for your help? 
The Haitians are extremely grateful for our presents in Milot. The Mayor of the town personally thanked our group and said it is an honor that her town was chosen for the project. She hopes the project will be successful just like EWB. We cannot email the local people, but we do have cell phone numbers of many people. We have called them once since we have been home to check on the progress of the project and it seems like everything is going smoothly.

Do the students in Engineers Without Borders all study engineering?
We have 15 students and two faculty advisers, Professor Jay Meegoda and Allyn Luke, assistant to the chairman of the Civil Engineering Department. The students in the group have various majors, some engineering and some not.  We have those studying mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering, industrial engineering and computer engineering. But others major in construction management, architecture, engineering management and history. Any NJIT student, undergraduate or graduate, can join the club.

When was your last trip to Haiti?
We were in Haiti on October 25th till November 1st. We accomplished way more than we projected and we hope to get as much done in the January trip. EWB is working very hard here at NJIT to make the January trip possible.

Did your group design the filter or did it already exist?
The Bio-sand filter was invented in Calgary, Canada, but has gone through many modifications. We did a lot of research and decided that this particular BioSand Filter was the best way to get clean water cheaply in Haiti.  The cost of the filter is dependent on where the filter is built, due to varying prices of materials. We estimate the cost to manufacture the filter is $40.  But we’ll sell them to the villagers of Milot at a subsidized price of $5.

Owen Fitzgerald, the former president of your group, graduated last year, but is still helping out on this project. How is that?
Owen worked with a nonprofit group called Clean Water for Haiti (www.cleanwaterforhaiti.org). They construct and sell a water filtration technology and train other organizations to do the same in other areas of Haiti. Over the summer, while he was in Haiti, Owen took a cross-country drive to meet us in Milot and help us get our bio-sand filter project started.  He’s deeply committed to this project and he was a big help. You can read about the work he’s done at owenfitz.blogspot.com.

Does it make you feel good to help impoverished people who live in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere?
There are 1.1 billion people in the world without clean water. It’s great to be able to help even a fraction of them. Many Americans go about their daily lives not giving a thought to the amount of water they are wasting, while there are people who don’t even running water, or clean drinking water. Engineers Without Borders hopes to help make a difference by raising the awareness of this matter.

Haven’t other nonprofit groups tried to help Haiti get clean water? What are you doing that is different?
There has been a plethora of water projects in Milot. The problem with all the projects is that nonprofit groups will come and implement their project and then leave Haiti without educating the locals. The people are not educated on how to maintain the projects and therefore the work deteriorates. The illnesses caused by the polluted water range from upset stomachs and diarrhea to infant mortality.  Even the simplest of illnesses could become fatal down in a third world country like Haiti. What we are doing there is different. When we are in Haiti in January, we will buy all the materials we need to build the filters, and we’ll teach the villagers how to build and sustain them.  Again, this is the essential aspect of our project: to teach them how to do it, not to just bring them a technology and leave them in the dark.  

Who should people who are interested in donating or joining the group contact?
They can kindly contact me, Bryce Anzelmo, at ewb.njit@gmail.com.  And anyone interested in helping our group is welcome to stop by our office at Colton Hall, Room 251.  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)