Helping To Engineer a Better World: Engineers Without Borders

Engineers Without Borders, a student club at NJIT, has two projects in Milot, Haiti -- projects that will improve the health of the villagers.

A group of NJIT students is helping a Haitian village get clean drinking water. As it is, many of the people in the village -- Milot -- commonly drink from polluted water that sickens adults and adds to Haiti’s infant mortality rate.

The students belong to the NJIT chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a humanitarian group that does engineering projects in developing countries. The NJIT chapter, formed in 2007, is helping the villagers of Milot build bio-sand filters that purify drinking water. Like much of Haiti, many residents in the village lack running water. So they must carry buckets to and from local streams. And that water is rife with bacteria.   

Since October 2007, EWB members have travelled to Milot to teach the villagers how to build, maintain, and distribute the bio-sand filters. Once built, the villagers keep the filters in their homes. An active biological layer and almost 3-feet of sand in the filter remove more than 95 percent of the water’s bacteria. After simply pouring the stream water through the filter, the villagers have clean drinking water.  It’s a simple yet effective technology that prevents them from getting sick from coliform bacteria and other water-borne pathogens.

The students raise money to pay for the filters, whose main ingredients are concrete, sand and gravel.  EWB began working on the water filter in 2007 and over the years have refined the filter and developed a close relationship with the people of Milot.

Baljit Kaur, EWB’s president, says the water project gives students a chance to call upon their problem-solving skills in a socially useful way. The club has 20 members who have a variety of academic majors, which allows them to pool their knowledge with, for instance, the biology majors working on the bio-filter and the civil engineers focusing on the structure.  EWB has two faculty advisers, Professor Jay Meegoda and Allyn Luke, who is Assistant to the Chairman of the Civil Engineering Department for Laboratories. Any NJIT student, undergraduate or graduate, can join the club.

“Engineers without Borders is all about applying our knowledge to better the community and that is exactly why I am involved,” says Kaur, a senior majoring in civil engineering. “My engineering career really began when I joined EWB, where I’ve learned to apply my engineering knowledge to a real-life project -- and one that is also making a difference in the world.”

On the trip to Milot last January, the EWB members tested the previously installed filters. They found if properly maintained the filters were 95 to 100 percent effective in removing coliform bacteria. Emboldened by that success, the students started working on another project. They are developing a sustainable latrine that will collect human waste and, through decomposition and biological processes, convert it into fertilizer.

“We are very excited about this new latrine project,” says Luke, one of the EWB advisers.” The latrine and the bio-filter are simple technologies that can nevertheless make a big difference in the people’s health. We are looking forward to explaining to them how these simple technologies can improve their health.”

In May of this year the group will return to Milot for two weeks to begin work on the sustainable latrine project and to continue work on the bio-sand filters.

“The Haitians are extremely grateful for our work in Milot,” adds Luke,” and the current Mayor of Milot is very supportive of our projects and hopes they improve the quality of life in Milot.” 

By Robert Florida