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Pulitzer Center Update March 31, 2010

Round eight: World Water Day winning essay

Global Maternal Health Essay Contest, Sponsored by The Pulitzer Center and Helium

The Pulitzer Center is partnering with Helium to get your voice heard on important global issues...

The children of the Rhema Grace orphanage in Tiko Cameroon have never heard of World Water Day, but they're no strangers to understanding what happens when they're isn't enough of it.

Water for Rhema Grace

By Winn Mete

The 55 or so children of the Rhema Grace orphanage in Tiko, Cameroon don't know about World Water Day. What these children do know is a life spent hauling fetid water used for bathing, cooking and sometimes drinking from a contaminated stream. They range in age from infants to teens. They know that sickness is more than a part of life; it is a way of a life for those trapped in the endless cycle of poverty, disease, ignorance and corruption. At the same time, they are the future hope of their nation—if they can somehow manage to survive childhood.

Depending on the statistics you read, about one in four children in emerging nations will die before age five from the simple and imperative lack of clean water—an irony to the nth degree given that H2O covers more than 70 percent of the surface of our planet.

Robert Champion had never heard of World Water Day either, but his life's work will entail designs to help insure that people don't die from a lack of it. And right now the immediate goal of the young engineering student, his classmates and their mentors is to improve the lives of a small group of homeless children and about 15 caretakers by providing access to liquid more precious than gold.

Champion is president of the University of Alaska, Anchorage chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA. The student chapter of Engineers Without Borders states that their mission "is to develop and implement sustainable engineering projects in disadvantaged communities, and improve their quality of life through environmentally and economically sustainable engineering solutions. In the process, students gain world experience in Project Management, Diplomacy and Resource Management."

They are young people charged with saving a world seemingly beyond salvation. But what the students and teachers of UAA can—and will do—is improve the lives of one small group of homeless children on the other side of the globe.

Only a handful of people from UAA have been to Cameroon on Africa's western coast. Even so, Champion says that his class feels a connection with the residents of the Rhema Grace orphanage. For the engineering students, this is an expensive project to implement.

Funding for travel, lodging and materials is largely raised by EWB students and from a partnership with Rotary International and several other NGOs.

Student Kris Homerding has single-handedly raised more than four thousand dollars by using his talents as a fighter in exhibition matches. A compassionate young man, Kris will travel to Cameroon in August.

Yet even as he looks forward to putting his engineering skills to use, he realizes that his biggest challenges may be those of seeing firsthand the culture of an impoverished nation and in sharing, if only for a moment, the lives of the children he will help.

He says at this juncture the EWB students haven't received lessons on handling the psychological aspects of their project but all mentors involved must have experience in dealing with an impoverished culture.

The most critical needs of Rhema Grace were assessed and outlined when a small group of students and teachers traveled to the orphanage in August 2009. In an extensive proposal drafted by UAA's engineering students, a three-part component outlined the orphanages' greatest needs.

No surprise; water topped the list, and along with that need lies the challenge of delivering it in an uncontaminated state.

One natural solution was to utilize the extensive rainfall of Cameroon from June through September. Students designed a rainwater capture system on one of the orphanage's buildings. Water running down the roof of one building will empty into two tanks, each holding about 10,000 gallons.

It's an ample amount to provide water for the greater part of a year explains Champion. Though the water won't be potable, with the aid of a filter system it will be adequate for bathing and general use. Yet before the tanks can be put in place the building first needs a new roof, another project in and of itself.

More critical drinking water will come from an existing well, or borehole. Water from the aquifer that feeds the well is good and abundant. The main obstacles in accessing it come from the decrepit generator that currently runs the pump, and the even bigger problem of buying the expensive fuel needed for it.

The EWB student team decided that installing an old-fashioned hand pump in tandem with the generator could provide the residents with an ample supply of water. But the supervisors of the orphanage are reluctant to change their present, albeit unreliable system.

For it's part, Rotary International is dedicated to water-only projects says Champion. Not only is the organization helping fund the cost for travel to the African nation, they also have committed to buying the orphanage a new generator.

When the student engineers go to Cameroon in August, they will also affect other major repairs to the orphanage. Replacing the damaged roof for the water-capture system is only one project. In the initial assessment last year, the team determined that the room serving as the kitchen poses a serious threat from the carbon monoxide produced by the open-pit cooking fires.

To remedy that danger, the students have drafted renovations for the kitchen that includes construction of a wood-fired cook stove and a ventilation system.

While it would seem that a facility in such dire straights would jump at any chance for improvements, all aid EWB-USA plans for Rhema Grace must be implemented within a strict parameter of guidelines. For one, all materials used in the improvement projects must come from local sources.

The reasons are at least two-fold: to aid the economy by purchasing materials locally and to insure a nearby source of labor should repairs be necessary. For every improvement that the assessment team noted, they had to be sure the materials were obtainable.

Not that the projects by EWB will be a one-shot deal; teams will return every year for at least the next five years to insure that the repairs and improvements are maintained.

"We don't want to let these people down," says Champion. Plans that fall through are crushing to the children who put their trust in benevolent strangers.

The numbers go on and on; the thousands of people who die every day from lack of clean water, the hundreds of thousands who suffer from water-borne diseases; the millions who have no access to the most abundant resource on earth. Numbers so staggering it's virtually impossible for the average person to grasp the enormity of it all.

No one has an accurate count. No one has a universal solution. To the team of young engineering students, the critical number now is around 55. The children of the Rhema Grace orphanage.


Engineers Without Borders-USA


Robert Champion: President & Design, EWB-UAA Student Chapter


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