Clemson program recognized for helping bring clean water to Haiti community

Greenville NewsJanuary 31, 2014 

Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries students and Haitians route pipe.

CLEMSON UNIVERSITY WEB SITE. EDU

Clemson University graduate student Joshua Mitchell said he ate two meals a day and lived in a hospital-complex dorm while helping build a water system for a remote Haitian village stricken by cholera.

While it wasn’t the most comfortable time of his life, he had the privilege of watching villagers come to expect something virtually all Americans take for granted.

Clean water.

Mitchell, who is from Columbia, is student director for a Clemson program that has been recognized as one of the nation’s most outstanding international education initiatives.

The Institute of International Education announced that Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries has won a 2014 Andrew Heiskell Award in the “study abroad” category. It’s one of the top awards in the world of international education.

“I think it’s a huge honor,” Mitchell said. “I hope that it brings not just recognition but more support.”

The system that Clemson students designed and helped build provides clean water for about 10,000 residents of Cange and the surrounding area. It was the first chlorinated municipal water system in Haiti’s Central Plateau.

The program also has won praise from Nadim Aziz, now interim provost and former chair of Clemson’s Glenn Department of Civil Engineering. He said he likes that students have worked to train local Haitians to maintain the water system themselves.

Work in the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation started when Jeff Plumblee, who was then a Clemson graduate student, crossed paths with the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. The diocese was working to upgrade Cange’s 30-year-old water system.

Plumblee and six other civil engineering students began design work on a new system in 2009.

A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port Au Prince a few months later, killing tens of thousands of people.

While Cange suffered little damage, the population swelled as earthquake survivors migrated to the region in search of medical treatment.

Then came the cholera epidemic, hitting the Central Plateau particularly hard. The outbreak sickened about 680,000 people, killing more than 8,300 across the republic.

“It just made our work even more important,” said Plumblee, who now lives in Greenville and works at Fluor Corp. as a business continuity and disaster management specialist.

The lack of sanitation and water filtration in Cange and the surrounding villages enabled the quick spread of cholera, an infectious disease.

Some residents in the most remote villages were too sick to hike through the rough terrain for treatment, said Jennifer Ogle, the associate professor of civil engineering who serves as the program’s faculty advisory.

“A lot of people were perishing just because they couldn’t make it to the hospital,” she said. “It’s a treatable disease, and a problem that can be eliminated with proper infrastructure, so that’s the tragedy.”

David Vaughn, a fellow of Fluor Corp. and director of business continuity and disaster management, said he first met with the program’s students in December 2009 when he was invited to a meeting with the diocese. The partnership between the diocese and students has continued to grow, he said.

“Students of CEDC are helping design and oversee projects in Haiti which improve engineering and construction standards and offers both cost and schedule certainty,” he said.

“The local population is seeing improvements in public health, gaining much-needed skills and striving for economic development. And most of all, we are seeing a generation of young, morally straight students change the world and in turn themselves.”

Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries originated with the package of disciplines known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, an underrepresented group in international education.

Once started, the program quickly spread to other disciplines, now involving 30 majors across the university, said Dr. Barbara Speziale, the director of Creative Inquiry, a Clemson program that sponsors the Haiti work.

When engineering students needed someone to write pamphlets, they recruited other students who were majoring in English. The project receives funding from multiple sources, so students majoring in finance handle the money.

“A project like this lets students see how a project works in the real world,” Speziale said. “You need to bring in expertise from many different fields to tackle any problem.”

Students and villagers worked together to finish the water system, installing the third pump in October 2012. It includes a new dam, a filtration building, six miles of piping, nine fountains, two new cisterns and two reconditioned cisterns — all housing more than 200,000 gallons of water.

The Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina provided $1.5 million for the project.

Funds for students to travel, collect data and begin design on the water system were gathered from a number of sources, including student fundraising, private donations and allocations from Creative Inquiry and the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering.

The total number of students who have participated in the program has grown to 375 since 2009, including eight interns who have each stayed in the country for seven months to a year.

Nathan Schneider, now a civil engineering graduate student, said his internship in 2012 was an unforgettable cultural experience.

When a Haitian crew member’s wife died, Schneider and other students served as pallbearers in an all-night funeral celebration on a mountainside in the pouring rain. He helped carry the casket down trails and sang Creole hymns.

“It really was neat to be accepted in that way into the community,” Schneider said.

The Heiskell award is the second for Uttiyo Raychaudhuri, the director of Clemson’s study-abroad program, who won his first while at the University of Georgia.

He sees the Clemson program expanding in Haiti and beyond its borders to other developing countries.

“This will be a Clemson global mission,” Raychaudhuri said. “The students are going to lead it. I think this is going to set us apart from other universities.”

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