Saturday, October 23, 2010

Most Influential College Organization in New York!

Hi Everyone!!

Thank you for all your support in the first round of voting for the Stay Classy awards. Because of all your votes, we are now the Most Influential College Organization in New York! Now we are running to be the national winner of this category... for $10,000!

Help us win by voting here.  (Don't forget to scroll down to the bottom and click "submit ballot")
Voting ends on November 5th at 11:59 pm.  Tell all your friends to vote too! :)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

StayCLASSY Awards!

Hello everyone!

I realize that we haven't been very good about posting these last few months. Engineers Without Borders Ghana is back in school and so rather busy keeping up with homework and our post-trip paperwork and design work.

However, we DO have some exciting news to share! We were nominated and selected as city-wide finalists for the StayCLASSY Awards for New York City! We are up for the title of best college non-profit in NYC and if we win, we have the opportunity to go on to the national competition (the prize for which is $10,000... that is a lot of latrines)! We can't win without your help. This award is chosen, not by a panel of judges, but rather by YOU. So visit the site below and vote for CU Engineers Without Borders Ghana!


Wednesday, September 1, 2010


After a month in Obodan, the rest of the EWB team has returned. No more goats, rooster alarm clocks and small children shouting 'Obroni' at us from across town (at least for a few months!). The adjustment was almost seamless, but I am still stumbling across a number of surprising realizations about my work in Ghana and at home. My first surprise came at dinner. The Louisiana catfish I ordered was so unfathomably good that it would be obscene for me to keep writing about it. My first hot shower nearly made me pass out from contentment. The little things around me, like traffic lights and debit card machines in stores, continue to surprise me. However, some deeper realizations have delivered the most potent shocks.

Upon my arrival I noticed that my perspective on sustainability had shifted. In the cab back from the airport there was a program on the radio describing a new sustainable technology installation in New York. I think a new building was constructed with an exceptionally low carbon footprint. The announcer was applauding the project's environmental foresight, and emphasizing its improvement on the old way of doing things. The project was a testament to social change, and the broad accomplishments of scientific progress. Yet nowhere in the announcement could I hear any specific testimony. The electricity saved by the sustainable construction was more of an ideological gain, laudable for its responsibility but lacking any observable effect.

After the announcement, it occurred to me that sustainability in Obodan is an entirely different matter. You conserve water to avoid a second trip to the borehole. Waste must be collected and processed in some manner, because otherwise it piles up on your front porch. Electricity is conserved to avoid black-outs. I realized that 'Sustainability' is not some ideological definition of a long-term goal, but a basic element of daily life. Even the basic engineering challenges of finishing the construction of the latrine, such as how to avoid breaking the latrine seat when it is moved every six months, reinforced the point that some issues simply cannot be ignored. The latrine is more than just a new, responsible technology. It is a true-to-form concrete structure that deals with human waste. This trip has opened my eyes to the clever disguises that infrastructure can create to conceal the material consequences of human existence. I am beginning to understand how engineering, and responsible sustainability, are truly at the core of daily life.

Now for some design updates; The Tuesday after Lucy's latest post Claire and Nnenna picked up our brand new source-separated toilet seat. The seat was a pleasant surprise in all aspects. It was well-built, intuitively designed and much cheaper than we expected. A strong vote of confidence for Ghanaian home-brew manufacturing. Claire and Nnenna finished the testing protocol on Wednesday and left in the evening for Accra, leaving me and Lucy to tie up loose ends. We worked with Sammy to install the new seat over the next couple of days. The final construction process was a headache, but after a few redesigns and some handiwork with a chisel and mortar, I think the latrine is ready to go. We held a community meeting on Sunday to introduce the facility, and after the concrete sets by this coming weekend the facility should be open for business. Our next task is to put together a full maintenance guide, and to start planning our second version of the latrine.

I apologize for the lack of pictures, but we should have a full set of construction media up within a week. Stay posted!



Monday, August 23, 2010

Catch Up Session

It has been a busy week, hence why the updates have been non-existent. Everything is progressing remarkably well and despite a few set-backs, we will finish all that we set out to do this trip!

The first latrine should be complete any day now. Once the pit cover has been poured and we receive the source-separated seat by mail (at least I think that is how it is arriving) we can have our grand opening! The substructure for the second latrine is complete and so we will just cover up what we have completed and shall finish the project on our next visit.

In addition to latrine building, we have been doing water testing as Claire mentioned in the last post. Since the last post however, we also tested the coliform levels in the KVIP. Yes, the KVIP... meaning that we had to GATHER the poo before we tested it! Needless to say, we wore gloves and stayed as far away from the pit and the poo as we could manage but never again will I test poop (nor will Nnenna or Claire I am sure!). Maggoty poo is never a pleasant experience. However, it was important to test the feces from the KVIP to compare to the decomposed feces that we will eventually collect from our new latrine.

This weekend we took a quick trip to Accra for a night on the town. It was Clay's birthday and so we decided to celebrate in style with a hotel room (flush toilets and REAL SHOWERS!!!), a fancy dinner and brunch, and a night of dancing at a popular Accra "nite club." While the entire experience was fantastic, the beds were probably one of the best parts of the weekend! After sleeping on the floor for three weeks, a real bed is the ultimate luxury!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pleasant Surprises

The last week has been one with some pleasant surprises!  To start off, remember how it had been really hot and sunny the week before?  The past week has been rainy and cool.  Although it can make doing work a little difficult sometimes, twice it has rained hard enough that we leave our dishes under the overhang of the roof to soak and wash.  Less trips to the borehole!

Another water-related pleasant surprise is the result of some of our water tests.  We've tested for total coliforms from both boreholes in Obodan.  "Borehole 1" tested positive, but "Borehole 2" has tested negative - or very very low counts of coliform, which we certainly didn't expect. This is great news, because this borehole is the one that we are planning to have as the source of the distribution system.

I promised pictures last time, and the only pictures I have on my laptop are ones of the coliform tests... but the colors are pretty so here they are:

Borehole 1: the foam and gel at the surface of the water (which has turned orange/yellow) is a sign of coliform presence.

Borehole 2: no foam! no gel!

Of course this doesn't mean that there are no coliforms whatsoever coming from Borehole 2- in fact, there may be some but just as a lower concentration. This is still much better than we expected though.
Even the water they sell in plastic sachets tested positive for coliforms.

Update on latrine construction: we've put in the door (complete with spring-hinges so that it shuts on its own) and the roof- now what we have left is the floor slab inside, ventilation pipes, the slab to cover the back of the pit, stairs to the door and some holes in the wall (holes? I know there's actually a more accurate word than that..) for light. 

Time to go now. Hopefully a picture of construction will be up next time!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Progressing on construction and progressing on tanning

I don't know why I didn't notice last year, but these past few days I've been feeling the effects of being closer to the equator.  Even when the sun is only out for a little bit because the clouds come by quickly, that little bit of sunshine just feels so much more intense than what I've felt this past summer and we're all getting tanner by the minute. That we're outside.

Today we met with Mr. Brobbe and Kwabena, both engineers who are helping us out with the project.  We showed them to the latrine (which now has a roof!) and discussed potential methods of closing off the pit (concrete slab vs. metal door), the possibility of a rainwater harvesting system on the roof, an alternate design for the second latrine, and the decomposition of the waste.

Our designs have tweaked quite a bit compared to what we came to Ghana with, after talking with the villagers.  For example, the pit size is a little bigger and the pit access doors are positioned differently, but these changes were made to adapt to what they are familiar with and more comfortable with maintaining.  The design for the second latrine may also change from this first one, but construction for it will not be finished on this trip.  Instead, we'll finish the substructure since they have already started digging the pit, and continue with the superstructure on our next trip after we have gotten some test results from the first project- making sure that the source separation we designed is successful, and that the waste does compost like we hope it will. 

We also did some more water quality tests today- bacteria tests for both boreholes.  They need to be incubated, one for 24 hours and the other for 48 hours, so now we wait until then to see what's in the water. We went to get the water samples midday, and proceeded to brown in the sun, though we were not out for very long.

Right now, Suraj and Nnenna are purchasing materials to finish up the latrine.  Hopefully we'll get some pictures of it in soon!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Semi-mid-trip update and Team 2

Hey everybody, Team 2 (Clay, Nnenna, Lucy, Claire) just arrived yesterday, a week and half after the first team, so here's our semi-mid-trip update!

Construction of the latrine has been going very well- we're almost done with the first one, what we have left is mainly roofing, fitting the doors and finding the source-separation toilet seat to go in the latrine.  Seeing the structure standing, almost complete after months of discussing it and designing it was amazing! Though it was only a small concrete structure, it was somehow so... pretty. In addition to the near-completion of this latrine, the excavation for the second latrine's pit has also started.  Lauren, Milesh and Suraj have done a good job of getting materials together, getting the community engaged and moving progress along.

Today, as construction of the latrine continued, we began conducting a few water quality tests for the borehole water.  So far we've tested for some heavy metals (arsenic, aluminum, and a test for multiple-metal detection) and they've all appeared negative (or very very low concentration), which is good news.  We'll be doing some more tests for bacteria later, and sending samples to a lab for more accurate results. 

That's everything we have to say so far in a nutshell. We'll update again soon, hopefully with even more progress being made. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ghana 2010

Once again, we have returned to Obodan. With three members of our team already hard at work building the source-separated latrine (the need for more [and more sustainable] waste infrastructure was identified as a possible project last summer) and four more EWB-ers arriving on Monday morning (hurrah for overnight flights!), this is going to be one busy summer in Obodan, Ghana!

We are building the first of (hopefully) many source-separated (meaning the liquid and solid waste are separate to reduce smell and ease of removal) latrines in the community. We have worked with latrines before, but not like this. A few years ago, the CUEWB Ghana project built a KVIP (Kumasi Ventilated Improved Pit) latrine in the community to reduce the amount of human waste leaking into the groundwater supply. While this fit the needs of the community at the time it was built, this one latrine now serves more people than originally intended. Therefore, it was time to change tactics. One problem with the KVIP system was that the waste had to be removed by a company that would suck out the waste via the original point-of-entry and cart it to some unnamed location. This costs money. With little-to-no organized taxation, it was difficult to collect a universal "tax" from the community to raise the necessary money to clean out the KVIP (although at only a few cents per person, it was a sum that every family in the community can afford). Therefore, we decided to change routes with the new system.

In the United States, we take our toilets at home for granted. Many in the US refuse to use public toilets for varying reasons (they are gross, who knows who sat there last, or because using the restroom with others around is embarrassing) but that is what the KVIP was: a public toilet. Not that there is anything wrong with that. The system DOES work! However, we are seeking to both provide increased waste infrastructure (in a country where most of the groundwater is now contaminated with coliform bacteria due to limited [or nonexistent waste infrastructure] in its major cities... I could list some papers with pretty horrifying statistics) and empower the community through responsibility, ownership, and pride. Therefore, we are building latrines designed to accommodate the needs of only a few families and there will be a primary owner of the structure who will be in charge of its upkeep. These latrines were designed with extensive input from the community and plans have been sent over to Obodan frequently throughout the design project for suggestions and approval. This alone gives the community ownership of the project. Even before we arrived, the community began planning for the next latrine, choosing an appropriate location!

As a first-timer when it comes to visiting Ghana and working in the field on development projects (and living without the basic amenities we in the United States have come to take for granted), I am both incredibly nervous and excited! It is certain to be an incredible experience for everyone involved.

Hopefully there will be pictures up soon of our designs and current progress on the latrine!