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Good to the last drop

A story in the Fall 2002 issue of The University Magazine helped bring a source of clean drinking water to people in El Salvador and Bolivia.

The story related the work of Sarah Brownell ’98 (mechanical engineering) and Bill Larsen, RIT associate professor of civil engineering, who developed and installed simple, inexpensive drinking-water disinfecting systems in Haiti and Cambodia.

Sarah Brownell ’98, left, explains how to piece together plumbing for an ultraviolet water-purification system in Takeo Province, Cambodia.

The projects caught the attention of Jerry and Judy Bohl of Otsego, Mich., parents of Julia Bohl ’00 (NTID), now an NTID employee. Since 1995, the Bohls have been involved in volunteer work in El Salvador through their church. During numerous visits to the Central American country, the Bohls observed that the widespread poverty of the area was drastically compounded by the lack of clean water. Bohl, who had connections to the water industry through his work as owner of a machine shop, looked into possible solutions, but commercially available equipment proved too costly.

After reading the article, Bohl contacted Larsen. He determined that the cost to build a water purification unit and operate it for two years was $737. He and his wife built one and took it to El Salvador in early 2003. Later, after talking about their project at a spiritual retreat, the Bohls met a Western Michigan University professor who was originally from Colombia. He and his wife funded a second unit. Another family learned about the project and offered to pay for a third.

A subsequent article in the Kalamazoo newspaper about the Bohls and their work has generated more interest. “I’m not trying to sell anything. but people respond. It cannot be bad,” says Bohl.

“We are so thankful that RIT thought the effort that Sarah and Bill put out to develop the original unit was worthy of publication.”

Meanwhile, Brownell continues her work. She helped launch and provides technical expertise to the Brainstorming Technology Center – a pilot project for technology experimentation and community education aiming to eradicate waterborne illness associated with unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation in Borgne, Haiti.

Prototypes of ultraviolet water-purification systems, a solar cooker and an environmentally safe “dry toilet,” all of which Brownell helped implement, are demonstrated at the center and rural outreach education seminars. Support came from RIT, the University of California at Berkeley (where Brownell is a graduate student), Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s IDEAS Competition, and Haiti Outreach-Pwoje Espwa, or HOPE, a nonprofit, Rochester-based volunteer organization supporting health care, health education and economic development in Borgne.

Brownell also promoted ultraviolet water-purification systems through the Cambodia Clean Water Project and worked with Ali Ogut, RIT professor of mechanical engineering, on a project to develop more energy-efficient ultraviolet water-purification units for use in municipal wastewater treatment plants, rural areas and homes. Last fall, Brownell presented her work at a conference sponsored by Engineers Without Frontiers at Cornell University and at a Caroline Werner Gannett Lecture Series talk on citizen activism at RIT.

“Being a citizen activist is about being engaged in your community and being willing to walk outside your comfort zone where you can encounter people different from yourself,” Brownell says. “Democracy grows when people come into contact with one another to share ideas, when people feel empowered to make decisions and effect change on any level, when people seek alternative sources of information, when people ask questions, when people tell their stories and when people take direct action.”

Kathy Lindsley and Michael Saffran