Stevens Professor Works with Senior Design Team to Develop Sustainable Water System in Ecuador

4/25/2012

In accordance with her mission to provide developing  countries with a resource that she believes everyone should have, Dawn Digrius, assistant professor of History at Stevens, has spent the past several years researching and planning to create a water system that can be utilized in villages that have poor or no water treatment systems.

Last month, Digrius spoke at the 56th Session of the Commission of the Status of Women at United Nation (UN) headquarters. Her talk, entitled “Senora Santa’s Challenge: Sustainability and Rural Women in Coastal Lowland Ecuador,” highlighted the need for agricultural and potable water and what can be done to provide it to lacking areas.

Now, she is working with a Stevens student engineers to design a water treatment system for one struggling village.

“Water is a basic human right and every person should have access to it,” Digrius said.

However, one in eight people throughout the world lack access to clean water. Digrius observed such circumstances while doing both archaeological and consulting work in El Azúcar, a village on the Santa Elena peninsula on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. 

“During my second trip to El Azúcar, I noticed that new water laws had been put into place,” she said. “Since my first trip, the treatment plant had broken and was never fixed, and now there was no longer open access to the reservoir.” 

These conditions meant that citizens had to rely on trucks to deliver water, and if the trucks did not arrive, then there was no water for that day. Often times, residents would resort to bathing in canals saturated with chemicals and soil due to the lack of barrier between agricultural fields and water.

Back at Stevens, Digrius began conducting research. 

“I discovered that there is a long history of different forces in Ecuador affecting water access,” she said. 

Digrius found that current water systems often have poor success levels. In Ecuador, municipal drinking water systems report losses of up to 65 percent, and only 15 percent of water in irrigation systems reaches its intended destination. Unlined canals, line breaks and poor connections lead to an even greater amount of water lost. With Ecuador’s changing climate trends and altered rainfall patterns, such loss numbers and percentages are simply unacceptable in the 21st century.

In El Azúcar, the rainy season hasn’t been as plentiful in the past few years due to the deforestation on the coast, and drought conditions have been severe. Most water is redirected into the reservoir, but the community no longer has legal access to it without government mediation. Some people have built hosing systems to pump water out of the ground, but only wealthy citizens are able to afford this.

Digrius’ current mission is to develop a total water system that will bring both potable and agricultural water to small coastal villages in Ecuador. In order to do this, she turned to Stevens students to engineer a new water system specifically for El Azúcar that can transport water to the center of town and properly clean the water to make it acceptably potable.

The project initially began during the summer of 2011, when Digrius and four Stevens students went to El Azúcar to begin gathering information for the project by interviewing community members, local engineers and government officials. Armed with knowledge related to inefficiencies in water management and the relationship between the community and local officials, Digrius then engaged a Senior Design team made up of Civil Engineering majors Mark Hamilton, Bridget Monaghan, Paul Peskoski, Michael Consoli, John Disimino and John Moorhead to work on the design of a sustainable water system.
“Access to water in an area like that is very difficult,” said Hamilton, the only group member to go with Digrius to Ecuador over the summer. “Water may have to be transported over half of a mile.” 

The team’s water line design involves running a pipe from the canal and draw water closer to the center of the village. From there, it will be fed into a reservoir. The water continuing into town would be filtered, and the community could also reap the benefits of recharging ground water. 

Digrius said the project will require a significant amount of funding but will prove to be financially advantageous to villages choosing to use it.

“Long term, the system will be extremely cost-effective for the village,” said Digrius. “The community’s money will be saved by not having to purchase water, and the cost of accessing water would decrease significantly. This system can be translated into any rural area in any developing country.”

In addition, the water line design has been designed to operate with very low running costs, saving the village even more money.

Digrius said the project requires funding in order to be developed in a timely manner, and she is working to raise awareness and support in a number of ways. 

“Exposing this issue helps to get funding, which is why it’s so important to educate people on the water crisis.” 

After speaking at the UN, Digrius was invited to be co-chair at Rio+20, a worldwide conference that the UN hosts on sustainable energy. There, she will present a project entitled “Without Water, There is No Life,” explaining the water crisis and what can be done to eliminate the problem. 

Digrius also plans to work with future Senior Design teams from Stevens over the next few years to continue developing the project.

“Now that we have a design to transport water to the village, I would like to work with a group next year to work on the water treatment aspect,” she said.