A group of UAB faculty, staff and students are traveling to Peru in May to provide clean drinking water and hygiene education for four small villages in the Amazon jungle near the city of Iquitos.

A group of UAB faculty, staff and students are traveling to Peru in May to continue work to build wells for four villages near Iquitos.

The project is the combined effort of the schools of Engineering and Public Health and the UAB chapter of Engineers without Borders.

The group will make the trip to the country May 29 and work in the country for 10 days, says Mark Koopman, one of the founding members of the chapter and a research assistant in the Department of Physics.

This past year, the group traveled to Peru and assessed the needs of the communities and developed a plan; Koopman says the goal this year is to begin implementing the strategies, including construction of wells.

“If you think about it, clean water and sanitation are keys to making all societies around the world truly functional,” Koopman says. “That’s what the effort in Peru is all about — to improve the quality of life for the people in these four villages. It helps students get a more global picture when they see how these folks are living and how they are approaching their own problems.”

“It was critical last year to see the situation on the ground,” Koopman says. “This year we’re starting to put some things in place. That probably will continue for another year or so.”

Better quality of life
The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate more than 20 percent of the world’s population is still using unsafe sources of drinking water, and the resulting illnesses and death can devastate communities in developing nations such as Peru.

“All of the villages depend on river water or very shallow groundwater, just a few feet deep, that is influenced by the river. Water testing carried out during last year’s trip indicated that most of this water is contaminated,” says Mindy Lalor, Ph.D., director of Environmental Health Engineering and faculty advisor for Engineers without Borders. Lalor and Carlos Orihuela, Ph.D., a Spanish professor and native of Peru, are among the 12 making the trip.

“Health records in the area show a lot of gastrointestinal problems and intestinal parasites,” Lalor says.

“We hope to provide the villages with a clean water source. We want to put in good quality wells that will last, and we’re working with the Lions Club in Iquitos to oversee maintenance on these wells over time.”

Engineering Dean Linda Lucas, Ph.D., and Public Health Dean Max Michael, M.D., support the project. They helped raise more than $2,500 in a Jail Bail fundraiser earlier this month or “enough to build one complete well,” Koopman says.

Education needed
Education also is a key component of the group’s strategy. Many people in these villages never have learned best hygiene practices, such as hand-washing before food preparation and other sanitation measures, so educating village inhabitants is essential to success.

“It doesn’t really help if you give people a clean water source if it’s not part of their culture to wash hands, for example, before cooking or after using the bathroom,” Koopman says. “All of these things have to be integrated; it’s not just about engineering.”

UAB graduate students on the trip will work with teachers and elementary school students to teach them personal hygiene and the proper way to get water from the wells to store it.

“Hopefully this education will be ongoing and the teachers will present the material year after year,” Lalor says.

The UAB group will gather information on the patterns of water use by the four villages prior to the education to compare with information they will seek in the coming years. “We will follow up to see if their water use, health and hygiene practices have changed for the better,” Lalor says. “We want to make a difference.”