Engineering cleaner water

Published 4:27 pm Monday, June 8, 2009

As Billy Clark finished up his junior year at the University of Alabama, the Pelham native began packing bags for a trip to South Asia with the program Engineers Without Borders.

“I had always wanted to travel to Asia anyway,” Clark said. “This was a way for me to do that and make a difference for the actual people living there. We weren’t just visiting tourist sites.”

A team of 12 students and professors spent May 10-30 in Vietnam and Cambodia working on a clean water initiative by assessing the drinking water quality of households and local villages.

The group spent its days on two separate portions of the project.

The students tested 20 potential sites for a water bottling plant. If constructed, the plant would provide clean water for the local villagers. The engineers tested the water for toxins like arsenic and micobiologicals that often cause illness when residents drink from local streams or wells.

“In-ground arsenic is a real problem there,” Clark said. “We took samples from a stream near a local market and it was highly contaminated because scrap pieces of meat were just thrown on the ground near the water.”

The students also examined clay water filters put in place by a not-for-profit group. Since the clay pots are porous, the water filters are intended to strain impurities out of the water.

“A lot of groups come in and set up wells or plants but don’t have the resources to go back and ensure they work long-term,” Clark said. “We helped to do that and assess for what other not-for-profit groups can do in the future to help these people.”

Clark said the group also visited the various villages to teach them how to use the equipment the group would leave behind.

Clark said Cambodia is a rough country. He said it’s progressing, but the villagers themselves must focus on simply surviving daily life.

“People there often harvest landmines for scrap metal,” Clark said. “You see people all the time with missing limbs. We want to make sure they don’t have to also worry about the water they drink.”

Although the students remained busy during their trip, they also kept up a blog keeping family and friends up-to-date on their work. You can read that blog at