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Studying water needs in India, diving deep into rural life

June 20, 2014
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ANN ARBOR—A group of University of Michigan students has spent a month in rural India surveying water needs, a project that also gave them a deeper understanding of village life – the delights of the mango harvest, festive weddings and cricket matches.

The students, who call themselves the BLUElab India team, departed in early May to begin the water assessment project that will help them design filtration and storage technology in the western state of Gujarat.

“It involves going to different villages and mapping their water needs. Where does the water come from? What are its uses everyday and how is it disposed?” said Mike McGahren Clemens, team co-leader and a junior in chemical engineering.

In India, more than 100,000 people die of waterborne diseases annually, according to a recent U.N. report. The groundwater in one-third of India’s 600 districts is not fit for drinking because the concentration of fluoride, iron, salinity and arsenic exceeds the tolerance levels.

BLUElab India got started a year ago after connecting with College of Engineering alumnus Harish Sheth, who encouraged the students to think about a project in India. He also offered to help with his SETCO Foundation, which focuses on healthcare, education and empowerment.

The U-M group was in India during a hot-and-noisy time of the year. May is wedding season in India, and the festivities usually include a loud boom box belting out songs. The students saw a few weddings in the village and soon got used to the music as they went about their daily work.

THe BLUElab India team meets with villagers.

THe BLUElab India team meets with villagers.

The heat was another matter. “One day we were surveying a well in someone’s backyard and it was the hottest day in our stay. I was jumping from shadow to shadow the whole time we did the water survey,” said Erica Dombro, team co-leader.

A key component for the survey was building relationships with the local townspeople.

“We had to overcome a language barrier. Even their English was different,” said Jon Minion, a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.

They spent time with the village kids playing Frisbee and even picked up some cricket skills along the way. “This really helped us to be seen less as a novelty and more as a member of the community. The crowd that followed us around in the beginning went away,” Minion said, adding that it helped them do one-on-one interviews.

They also met plenty of inspiring villagers, including Moongo Behn, a widow who built her life as a small businesswoman after her husband died. When the students organized a town hall in the village, she was the first one to welcome them.

“She is an incredible force and a positive role model for the women of the village,” Dombro said.

The team tried to overcome the class barrier that usually divides Indian society. “Whenever we went to someone’s house, hosts offered us chairs and sat on the floor. We decided to sit on the floor with the hosts,” said Dombro adding that it helped them build bridges with the villagers.

The villagers were also very generous with the students. They were invited to various mango farms where they had their fill of mangos. “It was so delicious, we couldn’t stop eating them,” added Zoha Momin, an economic major, who speaks Hindi and Gujarati and has been helping the team navigate the language barrier.

As they gathered information, it became clear that along with water filtration there were a range of issues that needed attention. Primary among them were sewer drainage and women’s health.

“Even though we were thinking of water filtration initially, we will revisit it as a group,” said Dombro, a mechanical engineering major.

In the fall, the students will regroup in Ann Arbor with the analysis and conclusions from their survey. After they decide which problem to focus on, they will spend the next year building on a concrete technology and implement it in the summer of 2015.

The group also has another plan – connecting kids in Ann Arbor with children in Gujarat. Dombro said, “We also want to expose kids to different cultures and have them interact with each other.”

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