Prof's ongoing attention to Honduras helps successive groups of student volunteers do development work that lasts
By Jon Reidel Article published September 18, 2007
Nicole Mason is worried about the damage Hurricane Felix caused along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border in early September.
Her concern about the devastating storm isn't abstract: The recent graduate spent three weeks this summer building a sediment catch basin with residents from the village of Jaitique, and she wants to know how the town is doing and if her undergraduate design work withstood the flooding and continued to bring the town clean water.
Mason, who will begin studying for a master's degree in community development and applied economics in January, isn’t the only UVM student concerned about Honduras. More than 100 participants in Dan Baker’s “Community and International Economic Transformation” course in CDAE’s Community and International Development program have worked in the country over the past six years. Class members have gradually improved water systems and developed other sustainable projects with local elementary schools, municipalities and non-governmental organizations.
Baker, an assistant professor in CDAE who has been traveling to Honduras since the late 1990’s to work with sugarcane farmers, says he’s heard that Mason’s catch basin withstood Felix’s best shot. “When there have been even moderate storms in the past this village has suffered by severe uplands erosion that has clogged and broken water pipes," says Baker. "It was great to hear from our local partners that the system had withstood the hurricane’s impact and kept sand and gravel from damaging their water system."
Mason's project, a sediment catchment basin which keeps eroded sand and gravel out of a slow-sand filter built by a 2004 class, is testament to consistency of effort and the commitment of students even after they graduate. “The only reason I could do this project is because I stepped into something that students before me have spent years sweating over on the way to the same ultimate goal: abundant clean water,” says Mason, whose catch basin protects against harmful sediments and E. coli bacteria.
Engineering and economics
One of the hallmarks of Baker's work, which is supported by the Vermont/Honduras Partners of the Americas (he is president of the Vermont chapter) and the Kevin Gorter Foundation, is its interdisciplinary nature. Baker and Nancy Hayden, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, collaborated to assemble a team of engineering students to evaluate the area's existing water treatment systems.
“This is an excellent example of an interdisciplinary effort on campus and provides a rewarding experience for students as well as the faculty,” Hayden says. “Civil and environmental engineering students have worked with Dan on water quality issues in several engineering classes over the years.”
Students in Baker’s first course in 2002 sought to find the single most important issue for local residents by conducting an environmental health assessment. They identified water quality as the top concern. Then they spent the next two years helping to set up a water-quality monitoring program with the help of a local high school science teacher and his students. Early results showed dangerous levels of E. coli, prompting students to construct the slow-sand filter.
Undergraduate Kelly Garrison made a crucial connection when she contacted Caitrin Noel '03, outreach and education coordinator of the UVM Watershed Alliance at the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, for help with some monitoring questions. Noel became so interested in the project that she contacted Baker, enrolled as a CDAE graduate student and began conducting water monitoring training workshops in Honduras for three years.
“A lot of development projects just end,” Noel says. “One of the great things about this model is that you have students come back year after year to work with faculty and staff who are already familiar with the history of the project. I’m trained in environmental science but I ended up getting a job in outreach because of this experience. It really drew me in.”
The real tests
Nicole Mason, a civil engineering major, worked with engineering professors to develop a design for the sediment catch basin. Prior to leaving for Honduras she bought valves, pipes and other plumbing material and assembled it in Honduras. Before the installation, she and about a dozen local workers dug up 40 feet of underground piping and built a bypass so residents could still get water during the five-day construction.
The 10-by-4-foot cement basin, located on the water pipeline leading to the town, briefly holds water flowing from the dam to the filter so that sediment can settle out before entering the pipeline and then sends clean water on to Jaitique.
“I was totally confident in the design before making the trip, but when you’re sitting there looking at it you’re not so sure until you test it. It worked better than we expected. I was so happy,” Mason says.