Montana State University

MSU students work toward ambitious goal in Kenya

February 7, 2011 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


In the past seven years, Engineers Without Borders, a student-run organization at Montana State University that provides clean water and sanitary latrines to schools in Kenya, has benefited an estimated 3,500 Kenyans, but it is just the beginning of work estimated to take 40 to 50 years to complete. Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders at MSU. View Slideshow   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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In the past seven years, a student-run organization at Montana State University that provides clean water and sanitary latrines to schools in Kenya has benefited an estimated 3,500 Kenyans, but it is just the beginning of work estimated to take 40 to 50 years to complete.

Since forming a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), dozens of MSU students have traveled to the Khwisero District in rural western Kenya. To date, the students have drilled seven wells, built five composting latrines and one bio-gas latrine, installed hand water pumps, implemented hand-washing programs and established a community advisory board, said Kiera McNelis, president of the group and a chemical engineering student from Belgrade.

"Our long-term goal is to provide the community of Khwisero with potable water and improved sanitation," McNelis said.

That means clean water and sanitary latrines to each of the 58 primary schools in the Khwisero Division. No student organization in the history of MSU has ever had goals as ambitious, or raised as much money - roughly $300,000 - as EWB, according to university officials.

"It will take a long time, but we've started something important and believe there will be future MSU students who want to complete the work," McNelis said. The MSU group is distinguished nationally for the scope of its commitment, McNelis added. Most other EWB chapters have commitments that last five years or less.

To raise funds for its goal, EWB at MSU will hold its annual Clean Water for Kenya Jubilee on Friday, Feb. 25, at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman. The fundraiser features silent, live and cake auctions, a raffle, live music, and a cash call, where attendees make public donations of support in an auction-like format. Tickets for the dinner are $30 per person or $200 for a table for 8 in advance, or $35 at the door. More information is available at http://www.ewb-msu.org/ or by e-mailing texelfeder@gmail.com.

The students' work in Kenya is greatly needed.

Most drinking water in the Khwisero District is collected from shallow surface springs or streams and consumed untreated. As a result, diarrhea is the fourth leading cause of death in Kenya, according to the World Health Organization.

Additionally, water collection falls disproportionately to girls who miss hours of class daily walking to and from water sources, either balancing water containers on their heads or lugging them in their arms.

"It's 2011 and there are millions and millions of people around the world who don't have access to clean drinking water," said Jeff Moss, the group's incoming president and a sophomore in the bio-resources option of civil engineering from Colorado Springs, Colo. "I think clean water is a basic human right."

Clean drinking water can have an enormous cumulative effect on improving the quality of life in the region, and simple hand-pump drinking wells in schoolyards can profoundly improve life for students.

With wells at each school, "kids will get to spend more time in school, not only because they're not sick, but because they won't be out getting water," Moss said.

Latrines are also needed in the Khwisero District, an agricultural community roughly a little larger in area than Montana's Gallatin Valley and with a population of about 120,000. Pit latrines have been the most common type of bathroom in Khwisero, and when they fill up, a new one is dug. The waste leaches through the soil and can contaminate groundwater. It also pollutes the plot from each old latrine, making the land unusable for years.

To make sure the solutions are maintained long-term, the students emphasize community involvement. Upon completion, the project is owned and maintained by the community.

"We want to make sure we do this in a sustainable way," McNelis said. "Some other organizations have given something to the area, but then left without making sure it will work in the long-term. We're really trying to break this trend."

Being involved with EWB at MSU has influenced the course of her life, McNelis said.

"Engineers Without Borders has been, and will be, the most influential factor in what I decide to do after I graduate from MSU," she said. "Seeing people work together on this is good motivation for me to continue to work for causes such as clean water and sanitation. It also makes me passionate about educating others."

EWB at MSU currently consists of about 60 students representing disciplines from engineering to graphic design to sociology and anthropology.

"Having students from all of these different backgrounds has helped us make leaps and bounds in our work," McNelis said. "We really use an interdisciplinary approach."

McNelis estimates that she and other group members devote an average of 10-20 hours per week to the volunteer organization, with the number increasing during particularly busy times.

Civil engineering professor Otto Stein, one of the group's advisers, says EWB at MSU has been successful because of the talent and dedication of the students involved.

"For whatever reason, this group seems to attract motivated students on campus, and success breeds success," he said. "If I throw out an idea to this group, students will soon take what I suggest, modify it and make it better....Working with them is one of the reasons why I like coming to work every day."

Leah Schmalzbauer, a sociology and anthropology professor and the group's other adviser, agrees the students are remarkable.

"I'm impressed with how reflective they are, and how they don't go in assuming expertise," she said. "They're also very in-tune with local needs and culture (in Kenya)."

Schmalzbauer believes the students gain a powerful global perspective from their involvement.

"Their world becomes so much bigger when they travel to Kenya and see how the rest of the world lives."

Members of EWB at MSU say they hope their work will have a far-ranging impact.

"The really great thing is that Engineers Without Borders works hard to get the (Khwisero) community involved in voicing what they want and what they need," said Texel Feder, the group's incoming vice president and a freshman in liberal studies from Helena. "(EWB) makes the community part of the process, so the project is their own."

"We really work hard to put the people of Khiswero and the schoolchildren there first," McNelis said. "Our work with this group benefits (MSU) students in so many ways, but we realize that our main purpose is to serve the people of Khiswero."


To view a slideshow of the MSU students' work in Kenya, click here.

For related stories, see:

"Engineers Without Borders partner to speak Wednesday at MSU," Jan. 19, 2009

"Students raise $30,000 in one night for clean water in Kenya," March 14, 2008

"Kenya offers lessons for MSU students," April 15, 2007

"MSU students overcome obstacles to help Kenyan school," May 22, 2006

"MSU engineering students plan to bring water to Kenyan village," Feb. 8, 2005

Kiera McNelis, ewbmsu@gmail.com, or Otto Stein, ottos@ce.montana.edu or (406) 994-6121