By Lee Anna Sherman
How far would you go to help someone get a glass of clean water? Zachary Dunn knows exactly how far he’d go: 9,000 miles. And that’s just one trip, one way. By summer’s end, Dunn and fellow Oregon State University students had traveled almost 36,000 miles — greater than the Earth’s circumference — to help bring drinkable water to Lela, a tiny farming community in Kenya.
So why would engineering students fly halfway around the planet from bucolic Oregon to struggling East Africa, not once but twice? Why would Dunn say that contracting malaria on his first trip was a “small price to pay”? Why would he shrug off a State Department travel warning about terrorism and piracy in the region?
“In Lela, women and children walk up to three miles a day carrying 40-pound buckets of water,” explains Dunn, who grew up in Albany, Oregon. “I’ve seen kids as young as five with buckets on their heads. It’s a feat. They don’t complain. But the loss to productivity and education is huge.”
It’s not despite the chasm between the Kenyan village (where waterborne disease is common) and his Oregon hometown (where pure water flows from faucets and fountains at the twist of a wrist) but because of it that Dunn joined the OSU project in 2010 to survey water sources, test water quality and commission a groundwater survey. He and a student team headed back to Lela in July to help spearhead drilling a well and installing a rainwater catchment system.
“We all have a common fate,” says Dunn. “These kinds of projects can help shape the future of the world. It benefits all of us. It’s a win-win.”
That all-embracing, planetary vision is what led to Dunn’s participation in OSU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA), which is dedicated to the vision of a world in which all communities have the capacity to meet their basic human needs. And it’s that vision that steered him to the Ecological Engineering program for his undergraduate work. The program, he says, is based on “systems theory,” the notion that everything is connected and, thus, solutions must be holistic.
“I’m interested in redefining the relationship between humans and the planet,” says Dunn, who describes himself as a “born tinkerer,” always tilting toward problem solving even in childhood.
The Lela Women’s Water Committee linked up with EWB-USA when they were looking for a partner on their quest for a better life. “We only partner with communities that have identified a need and have asked for help,” says Dunn, who will start graduate studies in public policy this fall.
The other EWB-USA requirement: The project must be sustainable. “A huge number of wells in Africa are in disrepair,” Dunn notes. “Many communities do not have the capacity to maintain them.”
That’s why EWB-OSU’s team of six (five students and one professional mentor) recommended a hand pump for Lela’s new well. Other power-source options, such as diesel or solar, cost too much to maintain or are targets for theft. With guidance from faculty and a groundwater expert from engineering firm CH2M Hill, the students have researched everything from the compressive strength of concrete (for the foundations under rainwater storage tanks) to the reliability and availability of pumps.
In Kenya, Dunn and his team stay in a “simba,” a house made of wood and mud with a corrugated metal roof, on the land owned by village elder Charles Olang’o. The elder’s son Paul is the translator for the Oregon State engineers. A fast friendship has formed among the Kenyans and the students.
“We have a really special bond with Lela,” Dunn says. “Charles calls me his son; Paul calls me his brother. They are very gracious people.”
Read updates and see photos of the Oregon State students’ work in Kenya.
For more information about education abroad opportunities for OSU students, contact the International Degree & Education Abroad (IDEA) office at 541-737-3006.