ESF Grand Challenges Scholars Program scholar, Elliott Carlson, presents their multicultural competency on project experience in Boaco, Nicaragua.  They explain how a multicultural perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.  The Grand Challenge addressed in this competency is Provide Access to Clean Water.

In our everyday lives, we do not often think of what our next source of water will be.  We turn on the faucet expecting the water to flow out both steadily and most importantly, clean.  We’ve grown to trust our homes, our towns, or our cities to provide its residents with a reliable source of clean water.  Now, imagine this was not the case.  Many people throughout the world are required to walk miles to their closest water source.  In addition to the distance traveled, the source may be unreliable or even unclean, leading to more time or energy spent obtaining water.

This is somewhat the case at a school on the outskirts of Boaco, Nicaragua.  Located about 20 minutes off the main highway, the schools is not connected to any grid of utilities such as water, sanitation, or electricity.  They rely on hand pumps located throughout the community to extract from the groundwater source.  These pumps require the user to rotate a large wheel in order to raise the water to the surface.  This is a time consuming and energy intensive method to obtain water, especially for the children who attended the school.


Figure 1. Elliott Carlson (left) with Gustavo Reyes PE (right) installing water distribution system

In addition to general academics, the instructors wanted to teach the students about agriculture.  Specially, a method of farming adopted in the region called sustainable mini-farming or biointensive farming.  These methods strive to use the natural resources as efficiently as possible and grow the food naturally.  Methods such as deep soil preparation, composting, companion planting, and carbon farming are adopted.  The instructors at the school also wanted to develop gardens on site where the students would have the opportunity to have hands on learning experience.  In order to successfully develop agricultural plots at the school, the method of water delivery would need to be upgraded.

Figure 2. Construction of the school’s water distribution system to feed agricultural gardens

Conveniently located on site was a well with a hand pump installed.  This pump was upgraded to solar pump to provide a more energy efficient method of transporting the water to the surface.  Additionally, a tank was added to the site in order to provide a water reserve for the school (Figure 1).  The tank would be fed by the solar pump then distributed to the three garden beds through a drip irrigation system (Figure 2).  This system would ensure the tank is consistently filled and the beds are provided enough water to promote growth.  Not only does this water distribution system provide a reliable source of water to the school it also decreases the amount of energy required obtain the water.

By working closely with the local community beneficiaries, our team was able to design and implement a system that would provide the school with reliable clean water.  By adapting the previously used groundwater pumping method, the school is now outfitted with a solar pump, piping, tank, and drip irrigated agricultural beds.  These improvements create an environment for students to have hands on learning opportunities to develop their agricultural skills.  By taking a familiar method of water acquisition and improving it, the community felt comfortable with the new system.  Through the understanding of a different culture, the proposed engineering solution was accepted, implemented, and adopted by the community.