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Students from Sustainability Projects Abroad Spend 12 Days in Puerto Rico Working on Water Purification and Disaster Relief

Sustainability Projects Abroad (SPA) student group members in Puerto Rico

By some estimates, more than 1,000 American citizens have lost their lives in Puerto Rico as one chilling aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 17, 2017, and the whole island is still imperiled by the immediate risk of waterborne illness due to lack of purified water. In answer to this national emergency, a group of dedicated, highly-principled, and brilliant students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst raised enough money to visit Puerto Rico from January 2 to 14 and carry out an intensive campaign of water purification, water contamination education, the distribution of food and medical supplies, and other forms of physical and emotional support for the ravaged island. More information can be found here.

The students represented Sustainability Projects Abroad (SPA), a registered student group at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose mission is “to plan and facilitate student-led disaster relief and community development projects to green the campus and serve the world abroad.”

With several thousand dollars raised from a Gofundme online campaign, the SPA group was able to purchase 100 Hollow Fiber Membrane water filters, provided by the aid group Filter of Hope. “On January 2 to 14,” said the students “we were on the ground in Puerto Rico partnering with local aid workers and community leaders to survey water quality, train locals on how to use Hollow Fiber Membrane water filters, and employ LiveWaterMap, an online website for crowdsourcing and mapping water quality for everyone, everywhere.”

Besides installing the 100 water filters, the SPA group worked with the We Care Project (a Puerto Rican disaster-relief organization inspired by the three devastating hurricanes in the fall of 2017) to distribute food and medical supplies to several of the least-reached Puerto Rican communities, including Cidra, Jayuya, and Yabucoa.

Three of the five-person SPA delegation were engineering students: senior civil engineering major Nicolas Duenas and junior chemical engineering majors Bryan Chua and Ricardo Valdez. Also joining them were Natalia Dilan, a junior accountancy and psychology major, and Hector Luis Carrasquillo, a junior majoring in sustainable community development. Valdez, Dilan, and Carrasquillo are Puerto Rican Americans whose families were personally affected by the hurricane.

Each day was packed with backbreaking work, many challenges, and not a few surprises. For example, one day was characterized by drenching showers. Yet the team managed to visit the Brisa Dorada Elderly Home to install one water filter and drop off other supplies, stop at an elementary school once attended by Dilan and install three more water filters, drop off much needed supplies at another school, and then return to the town of Rabanal to distribute supplies to an entire neighborhood. The big surprise came when the team members were spontaneously asked to teach about the risk of over-relying on water bottles and the importance of water filtration in the context of the water cycle to a class of seventh-graders at Dilan’s former school.

Most other days were just as busy. “In partnership with the We Care Project,” as the students described another workday, “the team started the day early at a warehouse in Cataño to load relief supplies onto vans. They then drove a few hours to Jayuya across hurricane-ravaged landscapes and potholed roads to rendezvous with a local church, Iglesia En Dios Haremos Proezas, [which] was working with the Secretary of Emergency Management of Jayuya, Aurora Nieves, to distribute aid to local households.”

On another day they spent their morning loading up supplies in a truck and van destined for the town of Ciales, and then they spent the rest of that day distributing those supplies, in addition to critical water filters, to the Ciales community.

One Sunday, as team members said, “During a lively mass at the local church led by Deacon Wilfredo - Natalia's dad - Ricardo shared about the filter distribution that SPA is doing in Puerto Rico. The team then visited Natalia's house, where an architect, Vanessa, and civil engineer Bury drew plans for rebuilding the house. The team then headed to Patillas and Yabucoa to distribute water filters to local residents who had just started receiving water again from the municipality thanks to a backup generator.”

The technology provided by the UMass team was a key to the SPA trip. Hollow Fiber Membrane technology provides an effective way to purify water by using physical barrier filtration to remove pathogens from water. The organization that provided the technology, Filter of Hope, is a nonprofit with a mission to provide safe, clean drinking water to families in need worldwide. As Filter of Hope said, “Our goal is simple: to change the world through the distribution of these highly-effective and affordable water filters.”

Another key technology was invented at UMass. Team-member Chua was part of the five-person interdisciplinary team that won four prizes at the HackUMass hackathon on November 3 through 5, 2017, by creating LiveWaterMap, invented to counteract the devastation and resultant water shortage and contamination caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. As the team explained its product, “LiveWaterMap is an online web service that collects and maps water quality data using GPS and time data - information that can be easily understood and made available for anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

In the case of Puerto Rico, LiveWaterMap was meant to be employed by aid workers, community leaders, and local authorities who are dealing with the water emergency. The team went on to say that “Low-cost, open-source, modular, Arduino-based water sensors can easily be configured to send geotagged and timestamped data on four different parameters (pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and temperature) that can be interpreted to determine if a water source is likely to be contaminated or not.” While on the ground, the team realized that LiveWaterMap could not be easily implemented as it was more pertinent to find out who needed help through directly contacting and working with emergency managers, especially in the context of the lack of WiFi in most places on the island.

In spite of its highly successful, life-saving trip to Puerto Rico, SPA has a lot of other work on its future agenda.

“The mission has only just begun,” as the SPA students declared. “We are currently looking for long-term partners, sponsors, and volunteers interested in the sustainable community development of Puerto Rico if we come back with a bigger team in the summer to do projects like installing solar panels as part of grid-independent microgrids, turning invasive bamboo into hurricane-proof furniture, and teaching public school students how to design, code, and employ arduino-based water sensors. If you'd like to take part in any way, just send us a message at” (February 2018)