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Posted 6/4/2014

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By Jennifer Davis, Hydrological Engineer and Eileen Williamson, Public Affairs Specialist
Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Also, personally-rewarding volunteer opportunity through Nebraska Engineers without Borders

Engineers are needed around-the-world for their knowledge and expertise. Their skills and talents are honed through formal education and job experiences and many choose to share their talents through volunteering. Jennifer Davis, a hydrological engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District is a volunteer with the Nebraska Chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB-NE).

In June 2013, a team from the EWB-NE spent two weeks in Uganda working on rain harvesting projects. Traveling to Uganda were eight representatives of the Nebraska chapter: two students, a student chapter advisor from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and five members of the Nebraska professional chapter, including Davis.

The team’s implementation and surveying trip included repairing an existing system at the St. John’s clinic in Gayaza, installing a new rain harvesting system on three of four main buildings at the St. Kizito primary school in Makinkee and surveying four sites to plan future improvements.


Uganda’s population is 34.8 million people and it is located in east Africa north of Lake Victoria, one of the sources of the headwaters of the Nile River and the second-largest freshwater lake in the world. Kampala, Uganda’s capitol city, has a population of 1.5 million people where pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, cars and vans all jockey for position on crowded paved streets with no lanes. “Traffic was chaos; motorcycle taxis carried men talking on cell phones and women wearing skirts riding sideways with babies balanced on their hips,” said Davis. Traffic is controlled mainly by roundabouts especially outside of Kampala where there is little to no access to electricity. Few people make enough money to own vehicles, van and motorcycle taxis are rented to drivers at a daily rate and most people walk. Taxi vans are usually overfilled and very dangerous. Davis said many vans had signs on their back windows saying things like: “Hope for the Best”, “Sit Down Boss” or “Trust in God”. 

The team obtained materials from Kampala, which is south of their project sites. Father Francis, the team’s contact in Uganda, found a small truck to retrieve the supplies. With three people in the truck’s cab and the bed filled with PVC pipe and gutters for the clinic and school, the team was stopped by traffic police three times while traveling to Gayaza and twice between Gayaza and Makinkee. Traffic police don white uniforms, stand at the edge of the road and wave drivers over for traffic citations. “Of all the vehicles that could have been stopped - motorcycles hauling passengers, chickens, bananas and 2-meter boards as well as vans full of more people than seats - our team’s truck was cited for an ‘unsafe’ load,” said Davis. “Once I explained that the materials were for a school, all was forgiven and we weren't ticketed.”

Water and Sanitation

The equator passes through Uganda making the climate pleasant with daily highs ranging between 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Water availability fluctuates seasonally with two wet seasons and two dry seasons. Dry seasons last about two months each and, with wet seasons, the average annual rainfall in Kampala is about 48 inches. During dry seasons, the main sources of water are private hand pumps, which become more expensive as demand increases, and, for the poor, unsanitary drainage ways. About 28 percent of the population does not have access to clean drinking water and 66 percent lack access to hygienic sanitation. As a result, infectious disease is high and the average life expectancy is 54 years.

St. John Clinic, Gayaza

The rain harvesting system at the St. John’s Clinic in Gayaza was installed by an EWB-NE team three years ago. Part this team’s implementation trip was to repair and improve the vertical pipe of the first flush system for the rain harvesting system to prevent it from pulling loose from the gutter. 

Two of four first-flush pipes had become disconnected from the gutters because they continuously held water. “We increased the length of the vertical pipe so it could be supported by a bench surrounding the clinic instead of hanging loosely from the wall,” said Davis. 

Engineers without Borders emphasizes sustainable projects so efforts to monitor system problems are an important part of all projects. “The clinic staff told us two of the three 10,000-liter tanks overflow during the wet season, and the 40,000 liter system runs out of water after 8 weeks during the dry season,” said Davis. “They also told us that water pressure against the cap of the first flush system made it difficult to empty after rainfall and that cows would rub up against the horizontal tubes stressing the system.” The team also discovered that the brick and concrete pads for a few of the tanks had cracked because the contractor had not added rebar to counter the tensile forces. 

To address these problems, small holes were drilled in the horizontal first-flush tubes to drain water after rains and relieve some of the pressure against the clean-out caps. The new first-flush tubes were modified to no longer overhang the concrete bench and discourage cattle from rubbing against them. Additional braces were added to the vertical and horizontal pipes adding stability. A local contractor replaced the cracked water-tank pads with steel webs to increase their structural integrity. 

St. Kizito Primary School, Makinkee

The EWB-NE team spent most of their trip installing a new rain harvesting system at St. Kizito Primary School in Makinkee, north of Kampala and west of Gayaza. The school has about 350 students, but requires 500 students to be self-sustaining. Dry season water shortages limit the school’s growth potential. 

The team only installed gutters on the front of three of the school’s four primary buildings to discourage thieves. They also developed conceptual drawings for future improvement projects.

“While one of the classrooms was receiving gutters, we overheard a teacher giving English lessons ask the class, ‘How are our American friends working: quickly or slowly?’ The children answered in unison, ‘Slowly!’ But, the children seemed very impressed with how both the woman and men of our EWB-NE team went up and down ladders and used tools,” said Davis

Improvements to the St. Kizito rain harvesting system will provide an additional 2.9 million liters annually to the school. When the overall cost of the system is calculated, assuming a 10-year life and a 5 percent annual maintenance cost along with the $27,000 capitol cost, the school saves 35 to 235 Uganda Shillings per Jerry Can (20 liters) of water compared to purchasing water at a hand pump during the dry season. 

Future Projects

General meetings for the Nebraska Chapter of Engineers without Borders are held the third Monday of each month at different engineering firms in Omaha.

Engineers without Borders works closely with representatives in the communities they serve to determine needed improvements. Projects must be locally sustainable in terms of technology and funding. The EWB-NE Professional Chapter has finished four of its five-year commitment in Uganda. “We hope to have funding and enough participants willing to make a return trip this fall,” said Davis. “We’re planning a final monitoring trip to complete the rain harvesting system at the St. Kizito Primary School, collect feedback on the installed systems, and assess the rain gage system monitoring effort.” The team also hopes to implement a pilot project for composting toilets for the staff at the clinic. 

The Chapter may choose another location after this year or remain in Uganda. 

To become involved in the Nebraska Professional Chapter of Engineers without Borders, please contact Jennifer Davis at Jennifer.P.Davis@usace.army.mil.