Santa Fe Parents
Fall 2010 Letter Home
Taking Collaboration to New Heights
The monsoon season in Nepal is greeted by villagers with blessings and a flurry of activity: 80 percent of the country’s rainfall happens during this four-month period, and men, women, young and old are busy working the fields to ensure their livelihood for the coming year. But monsoons bring with them unpredictable and damaging flooding and erosion, which undermine the country’s fragile water infrastructure and, as six St. John’s students learned this summer, can throw literal roadblocks in the way of efforts to improve sanitation.
Although Nepal boasts the second largest freshwater resource in the world, its water drinking sources are severely limited. Nearly a third of the population lacks access to sanitation and potable water, and 10,000 children perish each year from water-borne diseases. Recently ravaged by civil war, still susceptible to restless Maoist rebel actions, and among the poorest countries in the world, Nepal is hard pressed to address these issues. No one knows this better than three Nepalese students attending St. John’s: Shishav Parajuli, Prakash Pathak, and Manish Thapa.
They wanted to do something – however much of a first step -- about the seemingly intractable problems around public health, and they were able to benefit from the interconnectivity of the college community to find likeminded peers. A discussion between then junior Brian Woodbury and Margaret O’dell -- who is instrumental in getting students an array of internships and similar work or volunteer placements -- led to a conversation with then senior
Skip McGee, which then expanded to include their Nepalese peers, who had already started thinking about a way to do some useful work in their home country. (The three met in boarding school in Kathmandu.)
The students focused on submitting a proposal to work in Nepal to the Davis Foundation, which funds 100 Davis Projects for Peace each year. The students initially imagined setting up a medical camp – Woodbury and McGee have nursing and emergency medical training, respectively -- but Pathak pointed out that the first step to treating water-borne diseases is ensuring a reliable supply of clean water. Their proposal to build a water-filter system in Pathak’s home village clearly met the Foundation’s criteria for a grassroots project that embodies workable ways to cultivate peace, and the students received $10,000 in grant funding this spring.
After an intense couple of months building awareness of the public health challenge facing Nepal and holding fundraisers at the College and at a local travel store and at REI, the students were able to put aside additional money towards defraying the roughly $3,000 each would need to cover transportation and related costs. The students had also received guidance and medical supplies from the Hospitalists of Northern Michigan and from a Nepalese pharmaceutical company. Along the way, they established their own charitable organization, Foundations for Peace, and created a website to explain their project.
“We had a vague model of what we were going to construct,” McGee explains, adding that tutor Eric Poppele, who had a career as an engineer before joining the St. John’s faculty in 2003, was extremely helpful in giving technical assistance. Although Poppele was on sabbatical when the students were in Nepal, he stayed in touch via email and would research and respond to their questions. “It’s great the way everyone at St. John’s comes together and the way the faculty helps out,” McGee says. “Having a fully trained engineer on the staff is amazing, too.”
So it was that McGee, who graduated in May, then rising seniors Parajuli, Pathak, and Woodbury, and rising sophomores Thapa and Rachel Milner made their journeys to Nepal and traveled the 150 to 200 miles to Pathak’s village, Udiyachaur, in the western part of the country. “It took about 12 hours on the one major, two-lane east-west road,” McGee recalls. “Everyone going through Nepal– including buses and trucks -- travels on this road. A vaguely curved, 500-mile rectangular wedged between Tibet to the north and India, Nepal embraces remarkable geographic diversity, rising from just a few hundred feet above sea level to 29,000 feet at the summit of Sagarmatha (Mount Everest). Udiyachaur is at about 4,000 feet, in a valley, but the hills around it rise steeply.
When the team was at full force, they lived in Pathak’s family home and a neighbor’s home. Thapa, Parajuli, and Pathak all juggled ARIEL internships in Kathmandu during the summer. Thapa worked on a hydroelectric project, and Parajuli focused on government and business corruption. Pathak squeezed in his internship on cross-cultural issues and their impact on the economy before even arriving in Udiyachaur, while working long-distance to ensure that all was in place for the commencement of the project.
The first steps of the project -- taking initial measurements, meeting the villagers and getting them motivated – were quickly accomplished, but when construction began, the reality of working in a remote village accessible by a suspension bridge and then a mile of dirt road set in. Trucks and tractors could cross the river at a ford, but the monsoons began to threaten that approach. “Pathak’s father had to convince the tractor operators to switch loads and to get our stuff over the river once the muddy roads had been shoveled,” McGee recalls, “but at a certain point we couldn’t get any more tractor loads and getting materials to the site became a huge issue.”
Until they hit this literal roadblock, Pathak’s father, a teacher in the local public school and a respected member of the village, succeeded every day in engaging a tractor driver. “We were able to carry sand over when that shouldn’t have been possible,” Pathak comments. Against all odd, things worked, he adds.
With the villagers’ assistance, the students had finished digging the hole for the filtration system that would sit next to a 25-year-old water gravity-flow reservoir. The team originally considering placing the filtering system closer to the water source, in the hills above the village, but that proved unworkable – transporting materials would have been an insurmountable challenge. Other challenges involved the piping between the mountain spring (the water source) and the reservoir, which frequently clogged with dirt as sediment flowed freely into the pipes when the rains were high. In addition, the pipes were sized to carry but not hold water, so the valves had no taps. In order to prevent waste – and also erosion from water running out of the pipes – the mainline valves were only open during peak hours of use – three hours both in the morning and the evening. However, if the mainline was clogged, there was no water at all until drainage valves were opened.
“We had time and money, but not enough resources,” McGee says of the challenges.
Fortunately, the students were able to convince some of the villagers to suspend temporarily their work in the fields by offering to pay them for their help building the filtration system. “The water originally ran from source to reservoir tank to distribution points,” Woodbury explains. “Because the pressure head was high, we were able to circumvent the storage tank, and create a gravity-fed filtration system.”
Water now runs from the source to a sedimentation tank, where it is held for four hours, so that sedimentation will drift to the bottom. Then, this water cascades into a filter tank filled with gravel and sand of increasing average diameters, top to bottom. Two filtering mechanisms are at work, Woodbury explains. One is mechanical: bacteria is blocked by and attached to the filter media, and can go no farther. And the other is biological: a layer of “friendly” bacteria develops, which consumes the “bad” bacteria it comes in contact with. Then, the water is forced, via the pressure of the standing column above the floor of the filter tank, through a pipe leading to the storage tank.
“We included piping that allowed for reverse filling (to clean the filter media), shortcutting (for when the filter is being cleaned/repaired), and system shut-offs (allowing water to return to its original path, should the whole system break or need repairs),” Woodbury adds. The system serves 250 families, or roughly 1,500 to 2,500 people. It is sized (80,000 liters) to serve a projected population ten years from now of between 3,500 to 4,000 individuals.
In a related project, the students were able to provide additional toilet facilities for the public school. Now, 1,000 students and 18 teachers can avail themselves of half a dozen toilets – instead of just three – as well as a couple of new urinals.
“We were cooperating with the principal, teachers, and students and having an impact on the entire valley,” McGee says. “The people had such receptivity to work.” In a month’s time, the students had completed probably more than they had anticipated when they initially assessed their major adversary, the monsoons. “From St. John’s, we are used to thinking about options, and we weren’t afraid to make mistakes,” Pathak says.
Other than rain, mud, a surfeit of rice in their diets, and the not unexpected encounters with giardia, the students were well taken care of by their Nepalese hosts. “The prime minister stepped down while we were there and we had contingency plans if there had been trouble, but we never felt at risk,” McGee says.
Skip McGee returned to Santa Fe in late July to do search-and-rescue work through an ARIEL internship with the city’s fire department. A second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, McGee will be attending The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, before being deployed. All the other students have returned to school, except Rachel Milner who is taking a year off.
While satisfied with what they were able to accomplish, “we were all beginners in different ways, and we learned a lot,” Pathak says. The students now are looking for ways to make the project sustainable and recurring. With lots of video footage and photographs -- depicting progress on their sanitation projects as well as the beauty of Nepal itself – they are compiling a documentary for further fundraising. They plan a showing on campus during second semester and possible showings at Santa Fe’s Centermfor Contemporary Arts and at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan next summer.
All monies raised, Woodbury explains, will allow one of two options to be pursued: A fund open to St. John’s students in which they could undertake their own proposed peace projects under the name of Foundations for Peace; or a second iteration of this past summer’s effort, with different personnel and focus.
“Founding Peace will become an annual student-run project based in Nepal,” Woodbury says.
For more information about the students’ project, “Founding Peace – Building Peace and Health Through Sanitation and Education,” visit their web site, http://foundations4peace.wordpress.com.
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