Connecting with communities for clean water

Three students are having a conversation


How can students at Oregon State improve access to clean water for rural communities around the world? We hear from three students who worked in Nicaragua and Cambodia on projects that changed people’s lives -- including their own.

Season number
Season 7
Episode number

[MOVIE CLIP (Kel Wer): Water water …]

Water, water I like you, you make the earth cool and wet the trees beautiful, wild and green. Water water I like you, you make the earth cool and soft their flowers pretty sure and colorful. Water water I like you you make us happy hahaha and cheerful.

RACHEL ROBERTSON: For those of us that have access to clean water it’s easy to forget how important it is to those who don’t. That clip is from the film Kel Wer, produced here at Oregon State University. The film crew followed a group of Oregon State students to Lela, Kenya where they were working on a project to bring clean water to that rural community.

The student group is called Engineers Without Borders. There are nearly 300 chapters of the group, across the U.S. that work in 46 countries. The Oregon State club has had projects in four countries so far. In addition to the one in Kenya, they had a project in El Salvador, and are currently working in Cambodia and Nicaragua.

I’m Rachel Robertson. And yes, I did find an excuse to use a movie clip at the beginning of a podcast again.

[MUSIC: The Ether Bunny, by Eyes Closed Audio, used with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution License]

NARRATOR: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud.

ROBERTSON: So far this season we’ve focused on what researchers at Oregon State are doing to help keep water clean around the world. But today the focus is on our students. We’ll hear from three engineering students about their experiences with Engineers Without Borders.

[MUSIC: “Amor Chiquito,” Quincas Moreira, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License]

It’s a story about language barriers, redesigning plans at the last minute, the importance of hydrogeologic surveys, and dancing. Yes, dancing.

RACHEL YONAMINE: It was one of the best experiences of my life.

ROBERTSON: That’s Rachel Yonamine, a civil engineering major who is currently the president of the student club, Engineers Without Borders at Oregon State.

YONAMINE: Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that partners with both local and international communities worldwide to improve their quality of life in one way, shape, or form. We choose to do that through water projects, since it water is a basic human right. So, with that, we have two international projects: one in Cambodia and one in Nicaragua. I'm currently involved in the Nicaragua program.

ROBERTSON: Although all the students you will hear from today are in engineering, students from any major are encouraged to join, which helps to bring a diversity of skills to the projects. Not all the students go on the trips. The research, planning, and design work is done by a larger group of students in Corvallis. Rachel started with the club when she was a first-year student and has stayed involved continuously, but others join for shorter periods of time. The first step in starting a project is reviewing the applications and deciding which one the club will take on.

YONAMINE: I was actually with the Nicaragua program from its origin, which was a really exciting. I was there when they were choosing the community to work with and kind of discussing if it's something we want to take up. I've got to travel to the community twice, which was amazing and phenomenal.

ROBERTSON: As you can hear in Rachel’s voice, this is not just any engineering project. Engineers Without Borders is a chance for students to change people’s lives. It’s more than learning technical skills and project management, although that comes with the experience too. The program exposes students to situations and lessons you just can’t find in a regular classroom. A central goal of the club is to develop global awareness in our future engineers by giving them the opportunity to travel abroad, experience different cultures, collaborate with professionals, and gain hands-on, interdisciplinary experiences with international work. But I should quit talking, so you can hear the story from them.

YONAMINE: We are currently on our fourth year with the Nicaragua program. We partnered with a rural community called Los Potrerillo, so far we've installed a drilled well, we've connected piping from their well to their current distribution system. And this summer if all goes well we're hoping to implement a storage system, so they can store their water and use it all year round.

ROBERTSON: As it turns out, they were not able to return this summer due to political unrest in Nicaragua, but they hope to return either in the winter or the following summer. The first step in getting clean water to this community was drilling a well, so the main event for the initial trip was having a well driller bore the hole.

YONAMINE: A lot of research was done prior to this well drilling. It was a really big event, because we didn't know if we were going to hit an aquifer, we didn't know if the borehole was going to run dry, which means that we wasted $1,500 that the community partially pays for, as well. And luckily we did a hydrogeologic survey before, which was also a big gamble because we had to, like, invest money in it initially, without knowing if it's either even going to work. And it did. Actually, we hit probably the best spot that we could, which was amazing and we were really lucky.

ROBERTSON: The other main objective of the trip was to meet with the people who live there so they could help guide the process.

YONAMINE: We just wanted their input on what they think we should do for the future years. Like, what would be most appropriate -- is this something that they want, is this something they can maintain, etc., so that we can really get involved and make sure this project is not only feasible, but it's also sustainable on their part.

ROBERTSON: Communication with the community was the part that Rachel was pretty nervous about since she did not speak Spanish. So, I asked her how that worked out.

YONAMINE: So, there's a lot of hand motions. They knew I didn't speak Spanish so they kind of helped me work through it. And then the travel team members that were there with me definitely helped me out, too. So the learning curve was kind of exponential because I was thrown in. As long as I got some basic words, and I could like have very intense facial expressions, which I do, I was able to communicate really well with them and get the message across ... for the most part. Some parts I didn't always do that, but we worked it out eventually.

ROBERTSON: Working it out was a huge component of Rachel’s second trip to Nicaragua when they started the implementation of the project.

YONAMINE: I fully made a river-crossing design to help the pipeline go across the river to get to the highest point in the community to be gravity fed, and it turns out when we went there, we had to completely scratch the entire design.

ROBERTSON: The community nixed her idea of using wood for the quad-pod she had designed to hold up the pipeline.

YONAMINE: Wood doesn't really go well in their community and that was because it's so humid there. It would have worked because we would have been able to find good wood in the major cities; however, they didn't feel comfortable with it. And they mentioned it when we got there. So we're like, okay, that's not going to fly, because we have to make sure it's something they know will work.

ROBERTSON: The redesign used concrete columns and steel cables similar to a suspension bridge.

YONAMINE: And that worked a lot better for them, because they were familiar with it and they knew it wasn't going to go anywhere and they knew it wasn't going to deteriorate overnight.

[MUSIC: “Poppyseed,” Poddington Bear, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License]

ROBERTSON: I should mention that Rachel and the other students were not doing this all on their own. The student group always has a travel mentor along to oversee the process. For the Nicaragua trip, Stephen Good, an assistant professor of biological and ecological engineering, and Jim Wodrich, a senior project manager for HDR, helped her work out the new design.

Because of delays in the process, they were not able to test it before they were scheduled to leave. But during the group’s time there, they had been training the people in the community who were then able to test the system after they left. So, although Rachel has not seen the whole system operational she talked to the community members over the phone about how it is working.

YONAMINE: The community is getting a lot more water than it used to, and they also reported that they have no cases of diarrhea right now, which has never happened before, and it's a really big step for not only their community, but also for our organization.

ROBERTSON: The Nicaragua project is getting close to being finished, but the project in O’Rana, Cambodia started in 2016, two years after the Nicaragua project, so it’s not as far along. On the first trip, in 2017, the professional mentor was Paul Pedone, a retired geologist, who accompanied five students. I got the chance to speak to two of the students who were on the initial trip.

KEATON TOWNLEY: I'm Keaton Townley, I am a senior in bioengineering, and I was the program coordinator for the Cambodia program for the last year.

BRIAN BLYTHE: I’m Brian Blythe, I’m an electrical engineering major.

ROBERTSON: An interesting side note about Brian is that he was our production assistant for the podcast for the last year. And as part of that job he recorded interviews for us so he was, naturally, there for this one. It’s possible that I did not warn Brian that I’d also be interviewing him for this story… sorry Brian. That’s not the only curve ball the podcast team threw at him that he handled without flinching.
Rolling with unexpected situations was something the team in Cambodia had to deal with too – one of those fun life lessons that Engineers Without Borders provides. Here’s Brian to explain.

BLYTHE: The community submitted documentation that was like, ‘We need water, right? We have eight wells or something in the community, and we need water.’ And we show up and there's like 60 wells. The eight wells as it turns out were public wells and 60 wells were all the people that had drilled their private wells. But the problem was they had all these private wells but they all dried up during the dry season. So you could go to these private wells and they could get water during most of the year, but during the dry season either they completely dried up or the water just tasted super iron-like so no one would want to drink it. And so we're there in this community and everybody has wells but everybody's also just drinking bottled water. And so there's not a system of trash there or recycling or anything and so there's just plastic water bottles either being burned or just thrown in the gutters everywhere. So it's just like this huge ecological nightmare as you're in this community and it's like, nobody wants that. It's not like that's intentional - they just don't have any other options.

ROBERTSON: Was it kind of a culture shock to be there and see that?

TOWNLEY: Yeah, the trash I think I had gotten used to by the time just from landing into Phnom Penh, the capital. Even there, there's not a whole lot of trash service or anything going on. The whole road out to the O’Rana village it was, you know, trash everywhere.

BLYTHE: Which is really unfortunate because it's beautiful. Like, the most beautiful place in the world. Like, it's super tropical and like paradise on earth. It's heartbreaking and it's just because people don't have access to clean water.

ROBERTSON: Clearly there was a problem there that the club could help with. The issue would be how to do it right. The first trip focused on getting the lay of the land, and for this they couldn’t rely on their usual methods.

BLYTHE: You can't do like Google Street View, right? You can't really go down and look on the internet. So a lot of it was just orienting ourselves within the community and saying, “OK, where are these things actually located?” You know, where's the school relative to these houses? Where are these different public wells, and are they higher in elevation or lower in elevation? And so, we walked up and down that road many, many times, just both in doing our community surveying, and then later during the trip doing a bit of topographical surveying.

ROBERTSON: When they got home after the first assessment trip they started planning what to do.

TOWNLEY: We were hoping to use a public well that was already drilled in the community because are so many wells, it didn't seem like a good idea to put another hole in ground into that same pool of water.

ROBERTSON: What they needed was a hydrogeologic survey just like the Nicaragua project. That’s when the group hit a roadblock which caused some delay, but in the end got them two new professional mentors on the project.

TOWNLEY: There's not a lot of people in Cambodia that have that kind of technical knowledge - there are not a lot of engineering firms that will go out into the country into a rural community and do that kind of survey for us. So, we ended up doing a second year of assessment trip and went back primarily to do a rudimentary hydrogeologic survey. I connected with one engineering firm that does water projects, kind of similar to what we do. And the person I connected with ended up being one of our mentors.

ROBERTSON: That mentor was Terra Michaels, a water resource engineer who was working at Advancing Engineering Consultants in Phnom Penh at the time. She also suggested her father, Jeffrey Michaels, a civil engineer who signed up to be their official mentor on the second trip. Terra and Jeffrey helped the team perform a pump test.

TOWNLEY: We went to three different wells in the community that we had kind of identified the year before as being potential supplies for the system. And we essentially just pumped water out of it for four hours and measured the flow rate of water coming out of that well to see how much you can pump out of it, and the decrease in the water level as we pump water out to see how much taking out that water it would drop down the aquifer is what it's called in that pool of water and see if it decreases a lot. And then also measuring the water level of nearby wells to see if it's affecting other wells, and if it's affecting a lot of people or if it's just staying in one area, things like that. And so one of our other mentors from the first year is actually a hydrogeologist and so he's working with that data to see what we can expect from that aquifer and how much we can pump out of it, things like that.

ROBERTSON: OK, so you don't really know yet what you're going to do at this point.

TOWNLEY: Yeah. Nothing is entirely confirmed but we feel pretty confident that the best option would definitely be a well water to distribution system, as long as that aquifer would hold up.

ROBERTSON: The situation the group faced in Cambodia brings up another aspect of the Engineers Without Borders Program. It’s more than just bringing clean water to these communities.

YONAMINE: Something else we kind of tried to incorporate is this educational aspect in all these communities, and that's also what we do with our community meetings sometimes. We'll talk about why you shouldn't litter, why you shouldn't be drinking from the river, and so that's like a prime example. They didn't understand that drilling a new, many wells, would just run the aquifer dry, and that process was not apparent to them. So, that's why it's really important that we come in and teach them why things happen.

ROBERTSON: Connecting with the community was key to making that successful. And Keaton found some good ways to do that.

TOWNLEY: The value of having dinner with someone even if you can't really speak to them or you have to rely on like one translator and stuff can still be a really special way to connect with others. And, dancing. Food and dancing, I think, are both really good ways to that, no matter where you are, and whether you can speak or not.

YONAMINE: I want to second that. This is very true, also in the Nicaragua program.

ROBERTSON: That's funny, I was not expecting you to say that.

[all laugh]

ROBERTSON: See I told you there would be dancing. Beyond some new dance moves, the students had a lot to say about what they learned on the trip including hands-on technical skills, construction knowledge, project management … but the experience went deeper than that.

TOWNLEY: I've done a lot of thinking more about kind of the human sides of engineering and how do you make something work for real people that are going to be using it and not just, like, how do I do this math perfectly so that it's like the best solution. It's like, how do you make these projects so that they work for people, and that they'll be able to make it their own and stuff like that, which has been a lot of fun and I'm really glad I've had that experience.

YONAMINE: On a technical aspect, I learned so much, more than I could ever learn in a classroom setting.

[MUSIC: Bass improvisation by Duncan Robertson used with permission of the artist]

And then on an emotional aspect, it was incredible; these people, I can't even begin to describe how much they mean to me and how beautiful and wonderful and amazing they are. They just have so much heart and it shows through everything that they do and I'm just super blessed to be allowed to help them out and kind of create this bond with them.

ROBERTSON: What Rachel is talking about is beyond a global understanding -- it’s more than learning about how people from another culture dance, but dancing with them. Frankly, I think we could use more of that in our world, and I appreciate Rachel, Keaton and Brian for giving us a window into that experience. Our students at Oregon State often impress me. This interview was definitely one of those moments, and I’m glad I can bring you a glimpse of who they are, and how the experience being part of Engineers Without Borders impacted them.

This episode was produced and hosted by me, Rachel Robertson. Audio editing performed by Molly Aton. Our intro music is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio on SoundCloud and used with permission of a Creative Commons attribution license. Other music and effects in this episode were also used with appropriate licenses. You can find the links on our website. For more episodes, visit or subscribe by searching “Engineering Out Loud” on your favorite podcast app.

YONAMINE: This club actually ignited a passion for humanitarian work in me, so I might even apply to the Peace Corps and continue my work for a couple years abroad. But, yeah, eventually I want to come back to industry.