Fall 2017

Water for the world


Illustration by Keith Negley

During a visit to Uganda, Andrew Kanewske, ’18, was struck by the way people struggled with something we take for granted: getting clean water. “People, mostly women and young girls, would spend all day traveling back and forth to get water from a murky, stagnant pond that public health experts had deemed unsafe,” he says. 

Kanewske, along with several other students from the University of Minnesota chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UMN) and a professional mentor, traveled to Kyetume, Uganda, last year to finish installing a rainwater harvesting system at Hope Integrated Academy, a primary school in the country’s central region. Part of a nearly decade-long collaboration between EWB-UMN and Uganda Rural Fund, the rainwater collection system not only supplies water, but also frees girls to attend school and gives adults time to learn skills such as welding and sewing. 

Seeing firsthand how such projects can make a difference in developing communities led Kanewske, who was a freshman majoring in chemical engineering when he joined EWB-UMN, to change his career plans. Last year, the Southlake, Texas, native switched to civil engineering. “The things I’ve seen have given me a new perspective on life,” he says, explaining that EWB provided him with engineering experience “but it also gave me the heart and ability to connect with other cultures that you need if you’re going to do this type of work.” 

EWB-UMN student Bradley Ni and mentor Jeff Weiss work with community leaders to build one of three rainwater storage tanks at Hope Integrated Academy in Kyetume, Uganda.
Courtesy of U of M chapter of Engineers without Borders

From Guatemala to Ethiopia

An affiliate of Engineers Without Borders-USA, EWB-UMN works with underserved communities around the world on engineering projects, partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are familiar with local needs. Faculty and professional mentors provide guidance to about 80 student members, not all of whom are engineering majors.  

EWB-UMN has completed 12 projects in the last 14 years. Most have focused on alternative energy, agricultural development, and improving access to safe water in Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, Uganda, and Ghana. Although student members pay a portion of their travel expenses, the chapter’s projects are otherwise funded entirely by gifts from individuals and corporations such as Cargill, Coca Cola, Larson Engineering, Medtronic, and Barr Engineering. 

Paul Capel, the chapter’s faculty co-advisor and an adjunct professor of civil, environmental, and geo-engineering, says such support is critical to EWB-UMN’s mission. “Donations allow us to have the strong continuity that is needed to reach long-term goals on specific projects, and it ensures that most EWB-UMN students can focus on the engineering and public health challenges in communities rather than funding.” He says receiving such support also shows students “there is a larger community behind them, encouraging them to make the world a better place.” 

Having the chance to work on projects that matter helps attract students from beyond Minnesota to the U. Ryan Vogt, ’18, a Seattle native studying math and physics and the chapter’s president, says one of the primary reasons he chose the U of M was that he wanted to be part of EWB-UMN. “I knew of EWB and all of the work that they do, and I wanted to get involved and see how actual applications of things that I’m studying are making a difference throughout the world,” he says. Vogt reviewed design options for the rainwater harvesting system in Uganda. He also explored ways to educate the community on how to use water effectively and safely.

Currently, two groups are working on water-related projects in Guatemala and Ethiopia. Kai Johnson, ’20, a sophomore majoring in bioproducts and biosystems engineering, is co-leading the Guatemala team, which in 2016 finished designing and installing a municipal water distribution system in Xiquin Sanahi. Located in the mountains of central Guatemala, the small agricultural community lacked a consistent water supply. The team worked with Long Way Home, an NGO, to install distribution lines and tap stands from which people can draw water.  

EWB-UMN students and residents of Xiquin Sanahi, Guatemala, work together to install water distribution pipelines.
Courtesy of U of M chapter of Engineers without Borders

In May, Johnson was one of five students to visit nearby Paraxaj to assess the feasibility of a water storage, chlorination, and distribution system. The team is now analyzing the data they collected, including a topographical survey that will enable them to map the area before moving forward with design ideas. “Traveling to these countries has made engineering much more real than some hypothetical design project ever could,” says Johnson, who adds that working across cultures has also been beneficial.

Kanewske is now co-leading the Ethiopia team, which is studying the feasibility of a drip irrigation system for a large farm field and ways to distribute water from nearby canals. The team hopes to take its first implementation trip next summer. He says the community also wants EWB-UMN to develop a solar-powered cooker for injera, a bread made of teff flour. 

Life-changing lessons

Walter Eshenaur, a water resources engineer at SRF Consulting Group in Minneapolis, who has served as a professional mentor with the EWB-UMN for more than a decade, says he never ceases to be amazed by how much students change while working on projects. “The difference is huge,” he says. “Freshman come in kind of starry-eyed and deer-in-the-head-lights and they learn to use power tools and pour concrete and design and build things communities need. Soon they become project leads, and they grow and mature so much.” 

Eshenaur says he’s gotten to know many of the students well, writing them letters of recommendation for graduate school and even hiring some of them. 

Kanewske says he plans to build on what he’s learned through EWB-UMN when he travels to Cameroon as part of the Global Medicare Foundation this winter. There, he will help survey water sources, research and design water supply projects, and educate communities about the dangers of contaminated water. “I’ve seen and managed multiple EWB projects and that’s given me the confidence in my technical and leadership skills that I needed to get involved with international development initiatives on a more independent level,” he says.  

EWB-UMN’s former president, Anant Naik, ’18, who grew up in a rural part of India, says joining EWB-UMN was probably the most important thing he did in college. A biomedical engineering major, Naik plans to go to medical school and wants to one day make treatments and devices more accessible and affordable in developing countries. 

“It was very eye-opening and humbling to work with people in countries where fundamentals of life like water and food can’t be taken for granted,” he says. 

“The experience helped me see that I can help using what I know, and it made me realize what I really want to do as a career.”  

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis writer and editor.