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Student group preparing for summer trip to Nepal to rebuild irrigation system

April 19, 2016

Don Savacool, at left, and a Dhumba community member
Don Savacool (at left), a junior majoring in chemical engineering from Flemington, New Jersey, works with a Dhumba community member to collect information and measurements the Service Without Borders team will use to create designs for an irrigation system.

In 2014, three Virginia Tech juniors teamed up to form Service Without Borders, a Virginia Tech student organization that looks to use its members’ skills to share the spirit of Virginia Tech’s motto "Ut Prosim" (That I May Serve), locally and globally. 

Abigail Smith, of Cleveland, Ohio, a junior industrial and systems engineering major, teamed up with Thomas Belvin of Glen Allen, Virginia, a junior mechanical engineering major, and Donald Savacool of Flemington, New Jersey, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, formed the Virginia Tech student organization. The group recently completed an assessment trip to Nepal to collect data and formulate a design plan for an agricultural irrigation system that was heavily damaged during an earthquake in April of 2015.

Belvin, the design team leader on the irrigation project said the experience he’s gained from both Service Without Borders and the Virginia Tech chapter of Engineers Without Borders, has been an important part of his development as an engineer. “Through these programs I’ve had the opportunity to coordinate and work with international partners, perform field engineering measurements, and develop leadership and design skills in the form of a real-world applications with the potential to benefit an entire village.”

“Service Without Borders is a collaborative effort to create an environment for interdisciplinary service projects and to encourage dialogue between students across colleges,” said Smith. “We realize we’ll never be working on projects solely with other engineers, so it’s important to us that we incorporate the variety of skills students bring in from other colleges.”

In late December Smith, Belvin and Savacool, along with Theo Dillaha and Brian Benham, respectively an emeritus professor, and professor of biological systems engineering in the Colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and Life Sciences, traveled to the village of Dhumba in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal to collect information on several potential projects. While there, they were met by Tshampa Ngawang, a Tibetan lama who has, in the past, taught a semester-long course at Virginia Tech, and his son Tsewang Gurung.

“Many people leave Nepal to go abroad every day,” said Gurung. “I feel sad about that, as people from Dhumba leave because there is no income source in Dhumba other than agriculture; and with the irrigation channels damaged by the earthquake it has been worse than ever. So this project can help people living in Dhumba have better farming and uplift their lives with new hope and courage.”

During their visit, the group looked at three additional sites, which may form the basis for future work, including a school, community center, and monastery. For now, however, it’s the irrigation system that commands their attention because the livelihoods of the community members depend on farming. “The irrigation system features both lined and unlined sections, neither of which have functioned since the earthquakes,” Belvin said. “They rely on agriculture for subsistence farming and cash crops.”

An agreement signed with the village leaders includes a minimum five-year commitment to the community, and Smith sees the project as just one of many future projects. “The community is engaged and excited about this relationship, and we look forward to what the future holds.”

“This semester we’re creating designs for the irrigation system by working with undergraduates, graduates, and faculty from biological systems engineering, and we’re hosting seminars in different departments before our implementation trip this summer,” Belvin said. Working with the community, the team will rebuild the irrigation system, which spans more than one kilometer and includes a two-foot-wide concrete water channel. The team will line the entire length of the system to prevent water loss along the system.

“Currently they have a system of channels where they allow water to one person one day and to another person the next day,” he explained. “This system is broken and we have a two-part plan. The first is to line the entire system and then to install a water infiltration gallery.”

The gallery will collect water from underneath the rocks in the riverbed upstream and direct the water into the irrigation system. As the infiltration gallery is under the riverbed, there will be more water flowing through the system for a longer period of time, allowing the system to access water during drier seasons and supply more water for a longer period of time to extend the growing season.

Smith said the team would monitor the system after it is implemented. “Our next project will likely take the form of the community center, school, or some sort of renewable energy project,” Smith said. “Nepal has unreliable electricity, with regularly scheduled power outages. In Dhumba village, power is sometimes only available every other day, and people in a nearby community have turned to solar power, so we may look to that as a potential future project.”

“I call 'Service Without Borders,' 'Friends Without Borders,'” said Gurung. “It is something which will build good friendship and a special bridge connecting friends, exchanging culture, traditions and love. This project is not only about the students of Virginia Tech and Dhumba Village – I believe it will be an inspirational work for a new generation of people throughout the world. It has a value which can show that humanity has no borders and no boundaries. I love the quote, ‘helping hands are better than praying lips’ and this project speaks to this quote.”

Currently, Service Without Borders is raising money to meet the expected $75,000 budget required for one trip with five students and two faculty members. The costs include travel, materials and construction expenses. Matching a $15,000 donation from Outreach and International Affairs, the Language and Culture Institute also contributed $15,000. The program is also supported by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

“We are pleased to support this effort to give faculty and students the opportunity to tangibly contribute, on behalf of the greater university, toward improving the lives of ordinary Nepalis – in a way that will be appreciated for many years to come,” said Don Back, the Language and Culture Institute's director.

To date the group has also received $12,000 in donated labor from the Dhumba Village community, $600 from the Student Engineers’ Council, $600 from fundraisers, and pledged contributions from the College of Engineering dean’s office, biological systems engineering, chemical engineering, University Honors, and the Tshampa Foundation. The students are also applying for corporate sponsorships and national grants. More information on Service Without Borders is available on the website.

Written by Rosaire Bushey

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