The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Engineering Students Design Do-it-yourself Water Pump for Amazon

A team of students from the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has designed a do-it-yourself water pump for the settlement of Divisão in the Brazilian Amazon and taught community members how to put together the device, using indigenous materials. The simple mechanism, which can be easily constructed from inexpensive PVC and rubber, is engineered to pump clean spring water for many of the 280 households in the area. The pump provides the community with a home-made, sustainable technology for creating healthy drinking water.

As part of the trip to Divisão, located within the protected Chico Mendes Extractivist Reserve for rubber tappers, the EWB team also taught Brazilians the fundamental techniques for protecting their springs from contamination.

“Every location, every house, every school, every building that has a water source probably needs work,” explains Phil MacClellan, a civil engineering student and member of the Amazon team. “But we don’t have the time or resources do that. The EWB idea is that we plant the technology, and they spread it themselves. The rubber tappers really took to our ideas and are intent on using them throughout the reserve. That means building and installing pumps in a lot of those places. They were confident they can do it themselves.”

The rubber tappers live sustainability in the Amazon rainforest, but are plagued by disease and infection. The objective of this EWB project is to work with community members to design drinking water and sanitation systems that meet the peoples’ needs and protect them from harmful diseases.

Over the past year, the EWB team designed the pump to be constructed out of two materials, PVC piping and rubber, readily available to the community members. PVC was selected as the main ingredient for the construction because it is cheap, durable, and easy to assemble.

 “It was designed to be pretty simple, and we had done most of the grunt work earlier by making sure everything already fit together,” says MacClellan. “And we had practiced assembling the pump so many times here at UMass beforehand that we were getting pretty good at it.”

Once in the Amazon, the team constructed and installed the pump at a new school, which was recently built in the Mendes Reserve through a grant from the Brazilian government obtained by the team’s Brazilian contact, Dr. Vera Reis, a local university professor. In the process, EWB members taught people from the reserve to build pumps themselves and install them wherever they are needed.

As well-prepared as the EWB team was, it encountered unforeseen difficulties. When a UMass EWB team had visited the rubber reserve two years ago, it built a spring box, or enclosed wooden holding tank that stores up spring water so it doesn’t get contaminated, out of local wood and installed an American factory-made pump on this box. A spring box is the basic technology in the Third World for protecting spring water from pollution.

“But when we checked that box, it was totally rotted out,” says MacClellan. “It was no longer usable. It turns out they used the wrong wood, even though it had been suggested by local experts. So we removed the old pump from that box and took it to that new location behind the school, which has two separate springs. There we decided to install our old factory pump on one spring, and install our own homemade pump on the other spring.”

These two springs are actually just cubical water basins dug into the thick clay at the bottom of a ravine. “Over hundreds of years the clay had become so compact, it was like rock,” says MacClellan. “We did coliform testing, and the water in these springs was actually very clean, because the clay serves to filter out bacteria.”

The EWB team decided there was no reason to build spring boxes in this location because the clay already served that purpose. But they needed to cover the springs with wood to prevent contaminated runoff water from pouring in. So tappers from the reserve built wooden covers over the clay basins using ironwood, which supposedly doesn’t rot. Then they sheaved the ironwood planks in rubber, trying to make it as water-tight as possible, and also built up the sides of the two clay basins with brick and cement.

“These rubber tappers were actually very handy, because they build their own houses,” observes MacClellan. “Once we got the pump built and installed, they said, ‘Oh, this is a great idea, and we know we can build this ourselves. But we’d also like to have a manual for it.’ So we’re working on that now.”

Engineers Without Borders is a student organization dedicated to helping Third World communities create sustainable solutions in order to improve their quality of life. The EWB group is responsible for the design, fundraising, construction, and implementation of each project. The idea is not to create a singular solution but to provide the tools necessary for the community members to help themselves.

The Amazon Team was made up of MacClellan, David Azinheira, a senior civil engineering major and the Amazon Project Manager, Calvin Archibald, a former UMass graduate student in environmental engineering, and George Costa, the team’s professional mentor and a faculty member at Springfield Technical Community College. (October 2010)