Amy Salisbury and Gavin Bennett, civil engineering undergraduate students, learned that culture is often an important factor to consider for sustainable engineering. Amy, Gavin, and a team of other students have been working on a multi-faceted project to build an irrigation system and housing for a plant nursery and a bathroom for a village school, all in Gondar, Ethiopia. The overall objective of the project is to improve quality of life for residents of Gondar, which is a sister city of Corvallis.
For the nursery, the team must engineer a system that pumps water from a nearby river into storage, so that villagers can use it to irrigate their seedlings. In addition, they are building a temporary housing structure, since the workers reside there six months of the year and must walk about ten miles from their village to the jobsite. Since the nursery does not currently have a pump, the villagers hike down a cliff to the river, fill their buckets with water, and then hike back up the cliff to store the water in holes in the ground.
For the village school, which is located outside of Gondar in Sabia Siana, they are tasked with building a restroom, because there currently is none at all. A central challenge of the restroom project is the fact that there is also no restroom culture in Gondar, meaning that people go to the bathroom in open fields or bushes. The project is meant to encourage a bathroom culture, for the sake of public health and sanitation, while being respectful of the locals’ preferences.
For the nursery housing, the team wants to create a durable and sustainable structure, which is also culturally appropriate. Most structures in the area are built out of mud and sticks, so they could go with that option. Amy and Gavin are instead planning on using an adobe brick (mud-block) design, with wood and corrugated metal roofing. This design will be more sustainable, while remaining familiar to the locals’ preferences and culturally compatible. Another cultural question that the students must ask is whether the house should be one large room or multiple small rooms (as in most Euro-American cultures); they are continuing research efforts in order to answer this question.
The challenge of designing and building a toilet for schoolchildren at the village school is a particularly good opportunity for incorporating principles of sustainable engineering into their work. Amy and Gavin decided to go with a design adapted from an urban restoration effort after the devastating earthquake in Haiti; the Gondar team’s version will consist of six stalls on a platform with a receptacle underneath the platform to collect waste, which then goes into a composting area. This design is ideal, as it is considerate of the villagers’ culture and it is highly sustainable in the long run. Since the villagers do not currently have a toilet culture, composting toilets work as a sort of intermediate between no toilets at all and “modern toilets”; it’s more sustainable than most other options, because the villagers can deal with the processing of the waste themselves and even use the final product as fertilizer for crops, if they desire to.
Amy and Gavin are thoroughly enjoying the civil engineering challenge, the humanitarian and sustainability aspect of the project, and the sense of fulfilment that comes from getting out in the field and really making a difference for people. Click here to hear the story straight from Amy and Gavin, on the podcast Engineering Out Loud!
Note: Amy Salisbury worked as an Eco-rep for the Sustainability Office during her freshman year at OSU. Congratulations Amy on your impactful civil engineering efforts and thanks for continuing to involve sustainability in your work!