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Cal Poly's Engineers Without Borders chapter designs clean water solutions in rural Thailand

Abbie Bullen
The finished product of EWB's Pa Koe project.

A small Burmese refugee community known as Pa Koe is nestled in the hills of Northern Thailand. It’s home to about 150 people who live in homes with no electricity, and until recently, no clean water either. A group of Cal Poly students engineered a solution. 

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic needs. Cal Poly’s student-run chapter of Engineers Without Borders designed and installed a sustainable water filtration system in Pa Koe this past December, aimed at producing clean drinking water for the community.

The system had to be designed to filter out both iron oxide and E. coli from the water while also increasing the overall water supply to the area. The entire structure had to be able to work without electricity and require very little technical maintenance.

Abbie Bullen is a mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly. She was one of the leads on a team called Operations and Maintenance for the clean water filters.

“Operations and Maintenance is how do we teach the community how these work basically and how they’re going to care for them,” Bullen said.

Credit Abbie Bullen

The system includes eight large tanks that sit on two separate concrete, rebar-reinforced foundations. PVC pipe runs water through each tank, filtering it through layers of gravel, sand, and something called schmutzdecke. This is a biologically active layer that takes several weeks to build up before it begins feeding on other, harmful bacteria in the water.

Bullen was in charge of designing the manuals for this system so the Pa Koe community, who speak a language called Lahu, could understand them. A translator was with the team for the first few days of the project but after she left, the language barrier created significant challenges.

“The rest of the month, we had no translator,” Bullen said. “Once we started construction, it was all hand motions. Working together with people that don’t know what you’re saying and you don’t know what they’re saying, it was difficult but it went super smoothly. They were super capable of everything we were doing,”

Cole Cucinella is a Cal Poly electrical engineering student. He is one of two project managers for the team, and said communication was made easier because the community was passionate about the project’s success.

“It was incredible seeing the communities ownership of it, how hyped they were on it, and how many community members were huddled over these manuals wanting to learn what it was,” Cucinella. “They’re not just sitting there thinking oh sweet they’re gonna come in, solve something and give us clean water. They actually wanted to know how it worked.”

The language barrier wasn’t the only challenge these students dealt with. The construction of the system itself proved to be a lot of hard labor. Because there is no electricity in Pa Koe, the water had to flow through the filters using gravity. This meant the system had to be built on the top of a hill and all of the materials had to be physically carried up to the site.

“It was really hard, kind of like boot camp. It was something like 100,000 pounds of gravel, rebar, sand, aggregate cement,” Bullen said.

Cucinella said the students weren’t the only ones pulling the weight and it was rewarding to experience the moral of the community.

“There were days that I swear we had over 30 community members hauling sand up this hill with us,” Cucinella said. “They’re not getting paid. Their work ethic is incredible. They teach us a lot more than we could ever teach them.”

For most of the team, the project related this work directly to the students courses. But Cucinella majors in electrical engineering and this water filtration project involved no electricity.

“No matter how much I like electrical engineering,” Cucinella said. “I do get sick of staring at circuits all day long. And the coolest part about EWB is you start to learn about things that are unrelated to your major. You’re forced to.”

The team said that now, seven weeks since the installation of the filters, Pa Koe should have clean water. Based on the success of similar filters in other areas, the students say this system should serve the community for at least the next ten years.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.