John Merrill, a junior studying environmental engineering, is the project manager for Engineers Without Borders’ Sierra Leon trip. The team helped plan and build a clean water source for locals.

Over the holiday break, while many NC State students were filling up on leftover turkey and binge-watching Netflix, five students traveled to Sierra Leone with a mission. They traveled across the world to bring a clean water source to a school of 700.

Organized by the NC State chapter of Engineers Without Borders, the trip was planned for over six years, and started with a two simple requests from the Dele Village Learning Center in Lower Allentown, an urban area near Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

“They needed clean water,” said John Merrill, the project manager for the trip and a junior studying environmental engineering. “They wanted to use it for general wash purposes [...] drinking, sanitation and hygiene. And they also wanted renewable energy.”

The two tasks, clean water and renewable energy, were split into two separate teams, with the water team traveling over the holiday and the energy team planning to travel this August. Team one traveled to Sierra Leone on Dec. 26, where they stayed for two weeks to oversee the drilling of a clean water well for the school. In addition to managing the drilling operation, the team also supervised the installation of a manual water pump and a well apron — a cement ring created around the well to allow spilled water to drain and prevent water stagnation or contamination.

The Engineers Without Borders chapter has been in contact with the Dele Village Learning Center for many years, having first sent students to survey the land and make connections with the community in 2011. Originally, the team wanted to travel in the winter of 2014, but was unable to due to an outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone.  

“We had travel bans through Engineers Without Borders-USA and the university that didn’t allow us to travel,” Merrill said. “But we didn’t want to give up so we kept communicating with the community, fine tuning any designs that we could [...] continue to fundraise and try and spread our word. In 2016, the travel bans were lifted and this was the first opportunity we had to give back to the community.”

According to Merrill, NC State’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders was a good fit for the water and energy projects because of the design support it received from the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering and the additional help it received from the local area.

“Being in Raleigh, we have quite a few industry professionals to help and mentor us,” Merrill said. “We had two travel with us on the team. [There was] one from Black & Veatch and one from Duke Energy. Two professional mentors who were willing to come on the trip and advise us so we don’t have just students calling the shots.”

In addition to Black & Veatch and Duke Energy, the team also received assistance from resource Smith+Gardner and N.W. Poole Well & Pump Company, as well as money raised from fundraising to help pay for the $18,000 cost of the trip.

“We hired a local drilling team,” Merrill said. “With all of our projects we try to hire in-country and also purchase materials in-country. It’s a sustainable process. They know the contractor so if anything goes wrong, they can call them. Similarly, there are locally available parts. We’re also benefiting the local economy, trying to bring money though instead of bringing our own supplies.”

Before the well, the school received most of its water through rainwater catchment systems or by purchasing water in large 500L tankers. Both of these sources delivered non-potable water deemed only fit for sanitation actions like flushing toilets, and definitely not for drinking.

"The main goal with bringing in our project is to take away those unnecessary [water] expenses and have a sustainable source of water so that way they [Dele Village Learning Center] can continue to invest in the school and education,” Merrill said.

According to Merrill, the team finished production on the drilling in the first week before enjoying a nice extended weekend over the New Year holiday and returning to finish production the following week.

“It often lacks the stability that Americans find such comfort in, yet Sierra Leoneans are so much more alive than we are,” said Amy Bevilacqua, a junior studying industrial and systems engineering and one of students who traveled to Sierra Leone. “I think there is something to be said about people that are okay with not knowing what the next few days or months look like, whether it's from the lack of work available or the absence of everyday needs, such as water.”

Once the well was in, the cement for the apron was poured. After that, a drainage ditch was dug and a hand pump was installed. The chapter then taught the school administration and the local technician how to function the well and keep it running as long as possible. Then, it was finally time for the community to pump its own water for the first time ever.

NC State’s Engineers Without Borders chapter’s next project is planned for this spring break, where a team will travel to Guatemala to help with the construction of a rain catching system. The team plans to next travel to the Dele Village Learning Center in August to help establish a renewable energy source before hopefully returning again next winter to further improve water access in the area.

Anyone looking for more information on joining or donating to NC State’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders can check out their website at ewbncsu.org. The organization's largest fundraiser of the year, a benefits dinner, is planned for March 31 with more details coming soon.