UC Berkeley engineers travel to Tibet to bring water

Tibetan Village Project/Courtesy

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United by a passion for both civil engineering and humanitarian causes, a team of UC Berkeley students is raising money to bring clean water to families in a rural Tibetan village.

The eight civil and environmental engineering students are collaborating with Tibetan Village Project, a nonprofit organization that cultivates sustainable growth and cultural preservation in Tibet. As part of a competitive internship organized by TVP, the students will design and implement a water storage and purification system for one family.

To access water, Tibetan villagers currently must trek up to an hour each day carrying an oversized jug on their backs. During the winter, the local river freezes over, and families must crack the ice before retrieving their water supply for that morning, said Stacey Rutherford, a UC Berkeley junior and leader of the project.

“All of their trash is in that river — it’s their only disposal system,” Rutherford said. “This is what they’re drinking from, and they don’t even realize (it).”

The water is stored in a clay or tin pot, and though water is refilled daily, the villagers hardly ever clean the pot, causing bacteria to fester and encouraging the spread of disease.

Rutherford said the lackluster plumbing is due to poor infrastructure, noting that it is hard to provide order in such a “loosely knit community.” There are also few schooling options, and as a result, most of the contaminants in the water are actually inadvertently caused by the villagers.

UC Berkeley junior and team member Denzil D’Sa said that educating villagers is just as important as providing them with access to clean water.

According to D’Sa, many villagers remain unaware of the hazards of the river water — essentially a swimming pool of bacteria — and will continue to drink from the river due to this lack of education.

“We focus on water because we have patients coming to medical centers, and they have diseases like diarrhea so we try to get to the source to prevent future diseases and provide adequate drinking water,” said Tamdin Wangdu, founder of TVP.

Rutherford noted that due to this cycle of disease, the irrigation system is “basically useless” without educating people in Tibet as well.

The team, which is currently testing simple materials like activated carbon and sand filters for the system, will compete alongside five other universities, including Stanford University and USC. Independent engineers will examine the designs and, along with TVP, will create a final design that incorporates the best ideas from each.

The project is also part of an initiative to stimulate the economy in the village by creating a business out of the filters, Rutherford said.

“The culture is dying,” Rutherford said. “We’re not trying to change their lifestyle — we want to improve (it) while also helping their economy. Someone has to build the filters and clean them.”

The team is paying all expenses out of pocket and holding benefit dinners, selling hand-knit scarves and seeking sponsorships from local businesses to cover costs.

“We have it so easy, but for them, having no water inhibits so many different things for them,” D’Sa said. “We’re going to go in there, figure out what they need, implement our project, analyze the data and come back next year stronger.”

Wangdu added that both villagers and students gain from the project, calling it a “win-win” situation.

“This way, students not only learn from textbooks but can really apply (what they learn) and try to address (real) issues,” Wangdu said. “Students get the option to learn and get excited, and the community gets a real benefit.”

Virgie Hoban covers Research and Ideas. Contact her at [email protected]