MSU student group wins grant to expand Zambian water project

Contact: Zack Plair

The MSU Engineers Without Borders student chapter will use a recent $8,000 grant from Penetron International to continue its clean, sustainable water initiative in rural Zambia. Currently involved on the project are (l-r) Erin Wynn, Emily Farrar, Laura Wilson, Phillip Keck, Heather Hart and Sally White.

STARKVILLE, Miss.—An international grant soon will help a Mississippi State student team expand its fresh-water sustainability project in a rural African community.

The university’s Engineers Without Borders chapter recently edged a Harvard University team and an Austin, Texas-area professional chapter to earn an $8,000 grant in the Penetron International EWB-USA Grant Award Contest.

Based in New York, Penetron is a recognized leader in concrete waterproofing, protection and repair. For more, see

Engineers Without Borders USA is an international nonprofit organization with headquarters in Denver, Colorado. Its 16,000 members work with communities around the world to improve water supplies, sanitation, agriculture, energy use, civil works and structures.

MSU’s EWB student chapter was established in 2010 and currently has some 150 members. In 2012, it launched a five-year project to bring clean, sustainable water project to Simwatachela, Zambia, a rural area with nearly 4,500 inhabitants.

Dennis Truax said a weeklong voting process in late October determined the 2015 EWB grant winner from among MSU and the two other competition finalists. “We actually came from behind in the last six hours of voting to win,” he noted.

An MSU alumnus, Truax is the chapter’s faculty adviser, as well as head of the Bagley College of Engineering’s civil and environmental engineering department and holder of its James T. White Endowed Chair.

“We’re excited about the opportunity the grant will provide,” he said. “Of course, we’re also excited about beating Harvard and the Greater Austin professional chapter of engineers.”

Since the MSU African project began, Truax, teams of six students and a professional mentor have traveled to Zambia each summer. To date, their efforts have resulted in the installation of five clean-water wells.

Truax said chapter members had planned to expand the project to eight wells next summer while on the fourth Zambian trip. Their grant application was for $5,000, mostly to help cover travel expenses, he explained.

Since the Penetron grant exceeded MSU’s original request by $3,000, the team now is considering the addition of a ninth well next year, Truax said.

Located nearly 100 miles from the nearest city, the secluded Simwatachela villages must rely on shallow, hand-dug wells and manmade depressions near rivers to collect water for personal consumption and irrigation.

Truax said the deeper, more centrally located wells provided by the MSU team give residents quicker access to potable water and, in the process, create side benefits throughout the area.

“There are a lot of secondary affects from this project,” said Truax. “For instance, if we install a well near a school, it increases the likelihood the Zambian government will put a teacher in that school.”

Laura Wilson, a senior civil engineering major from Diamondhead, is the current project manager. A past president of the campus EWB chapter, she has traveled to Zambia each summer since 2012 and will be there again in 2016.

Wilson said team members have faced any number of challenges over the years, not the least of which was learning how best to communicate with the locals. Language differences aside, she said the Zambians continually have expressed their appreciation in the forms of goats, chickens and warm hospitality.

“As far as the people, everyone is so welcoming in the village; they know we’re there to help them and they appreciate it,” she said.

A senior civil engineering major from Pass Christian, current EWB chapter president Emily Farrar described her first Zambian adventure earlier this year as an eye-opening experience that helped greatly expand her attitudes about culture and life.

“It sounds cliché, but it is hard to really understand how much we [in the U.S.] take for granted that others do not have,” Farrar emphasized. “The community members in Simwatachela often have to walk miles just for a few gallons of poor quality water, and here we water our lawns with drinking water.

“There are so many communities similar to the one we are working in, so it is rewarding to know that we are helping even in a small way,” she said

For more information on MSU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, visit For information on the national organization, visit

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 9:54 am