Exploring U-M’s Opportunities Around the World



Providing clean water in Brazil’s wetlands

August 23, 2013
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Brazilian primary school students take turns peering into a microscope at a drop of drinking water. They are surprised at what they see. Tiny protozoans are in the water. But even more surprising is what they can’t see: bacteria – the type that can lead to diseases that cause nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain and fever.

The students are participating in a workshop with members of the Pantanal Partnership, a group of University of Michigan students who have been traveling to the wetland region in west-central Brazil for the last four years. The student organization is working to create sustainable systems that residents can use to get clean water, energy and education in Pantanal – one of the world’s largest freshwater wetland ecosystems.

The team hopes that providing these resources to the rural area will encourage its native residents to stay there. Currently, residents of the Pantanal must travel 93 miles (150 kilometers) down a dirt highway known as the “Transpantaneira” to the nearest city of Poconé for access to education and healthcare. Many leave the area to move to the big city, where they often live in poverty.

“I wanted to prevent the rural exodus of people pushing away from their own historic and cultural heritage,” said U-M alumnus Ethan Shirley, the co-founder of Pantanal Partnership who has been traveling to the area since he was a teenager. “I’ve lived here for years, so this is my community, my family and friends. As an expert on the area, I can attest that there is not a whole lot going into conservation and sustainability in the Pantanal.”

To combat that, the group has broken into a number of sub-teams, each tasked with creating specific technologies for the area. The Water Systems Team, which conducts workshops with primary school students, is also analyzing water in the area and constructing biosand filters that can help rid the drinking water of bacteria and make it safer to digest. Another team is analyzing current waste systems, working on building bio-digesters and other methods that are more efficient and sustainable.

“Technologies such as a biosand filter can improve lives with less environmental impact,” said Greg Ewing, a recent graduate of Civil and Environmental Engineering and former president of Pantanal. “Improving lives with minimal effect to the environment is an important and worthwhile cause.”

Also involved is an Energy Systems Team, which is currently working on wind turbines. The team tested out small-scale turbines at local schools this year as a potential for future workshops. It is also building a larger model at the Pantanal Center for Education and Research (PCER). The center – constructed in the summer of 2010 by a team of 22 U-M students – hosts volunteers, training courses and programs run through U-M. It also serves as the testing ground for ideas and technologies that they hope to export to other areas.

“When you boil it down, the goal is to help others. To make the people of the Pantanal and hopefully other rural places have an easier, happier life,” said Simon Trask, a mechanical engineering student who became involved with the Pantanal Partnership as a freshman.

Ewing said, “The experience has changed my world view.”


More photos and information about the Pantanal Partnership are at Michigan Engineering.


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