When UCF sophomore Maya Basquin returned to Haiti for the first time in more than a decade, she was shocked at what had become of her family’s country.

“Haiti is very, very different from what I remembered at 8 years old,” the Industrial Engineering and Management Systems major said after her most recent trip in May.

“The nation is in shambles,” she added. “People are extremely poor, and what disturbed me the most was that it seemed like they were getting used to it.”

Hit with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010, Haiti continues to recover and rebuild. Many people, including Basquin, see opportunities to transform the country since last year’s disaster by empowering local communities to have a stake in their future.

Twice in May, Basquin and 15 other UCF students made trips to southeast Haiti to help the village of Mare Brignole secure safe, clean drinking water with a project that also aims to create a sustainable business for residents.

These trips were the culmination of several years’ worth of work by UCF’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. In 2008, the nonprofit group launched a five-year commitment with this village of about 300 people to improve its quantity and quality of water.

“Haiti is a graveyard of failed water projects,” says Andrew Ivey, the organization’s president and a senior Environmental Engineering major. “To really succeed, you need to use local products and technologies that people have expertise in and that they can utilize when we leave.”

This summer, students finalized construction on a rainwater collection system. It consists of a rooftop water catchment specially designed to keep out bacteria-carrying debris, such as pollen, twigs and leaves, as it channels rainwater into

Six 6-foot-tall, 800-gallon cisterns that store the rainwater were installed near the village’s school and center of town. The system includes a tap located near the street that is accessible to all.  

The group also helped build 34 bio-sand filters that residents use in their homes to purify the water after they draw it from the public tap.

They simply pour water into the filter — a waist-high box of special sand that removes disease-causing microbes from the water – leaving the water clean and safe for drinking. The bio-sand filters require no power source or chemicals.

Simply built and easy to use, the new process is a vast improvement over the village’s previous method of gathering water – a six-mile round trip trek to a small spring that served as a water source for the village and neighboring communities.

Reaching the spring was a time-consuming and treacherous ordeal, with women and children traveling nearly all day. Animals frequented the spring, which was also used for washing clothes and bathing, contributing to the spread of disease.

“We strived for something sustainable,” Ivey says of the rooftop catchment, clay pots and bio-sand filters. “Residents can go home with these locally available supplies and build their own.”

Mare Brignole’s residents have been involved with the project since inception. Ivey said one of the engineering group’s most important goals was to enlist the help of the community to educate residents on operating, maintaining and reproducing the catchment system and bio-sand filters.

“Almost every Haitian person has a cistern in their house — they just weren’t the right kind,” Basquin said. “They are deep and unsafe, and they tend to collect a lot of bacteria.”

Unlike the typical cisterns found in villagers’ homes, the 800-gallon public cisterns have lids that keep the water protected from debris and insects during storage.

“My hope is that people learn to use our cisterns and bio-sand filters properly and then try to build them themselves,” she added. “I want to see a full flourishing of the entire village.”

UCF’s Engineers Without Borders chapter was established in 2007 to develop students into internationally aware engineers by involving them in projects that improve disadvantaged communities through sustainable engineering.

The group hopes to recruit more UCF students this fall – engineering and non-engineering majors – to help with the Haiti venture. All skills are needed, including students with backgrounds in fundraising, research, education and health.

“Engineers Without Borders’ doors are open to everyone who cares about humans,” says Engineering Professor Kaveh Madani, the group’s faculty adviser. “In fact, having students of different backgrounds and disciplines in the organization can help the group develop more fruitful projects.”

To learn more about UCF’s Engineers Without Borders, visit https://ewb-ucf.weebly.com/

To contact the group, email ewbucf@gmail.com.