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Last Updated: Nov 17th, 2006 - 22:35:04

Tsunami Channel
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World News : Tsunami

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Stanford engineering class aims to ensure fresh water for tsunami victims
Apr 6, 2005, 16:43, Reviewed by: Dr.

"It is not necessarily enough to provide immediate aid to people after a disaster. As engineers we can help people rebuild infrastructure and improve living standards in a way that is compatible with their culture and the surrounding environment."

When 15 Stanford civil and environmental engineering students started their Design for a Sustainable World class March 29, they had little doubt their coursework would remain meaningful after finals. This student-run and organized class, advised by civil and environmental engineering Assistant Professor Ali Boehm, is designed to ensure fresh water for victims of the devastating Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami.

"It is not necessarily enough to provide immediate aid to people after a disaster," says Sophie Walewijk, a doctoral student who is helping organize the class through an on-campus volunteer organization she heads, Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW). "As engineers we can help people rebuild infrastructure and improve living standards in a way that is compatible with their culture and the surrounding environment."

During the class, the students will focus on finding engineering solutions to problems identified by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on relief efforts in the remote Andaman Islands, 800 miles east of India. When the class ends in June, many of the students expect to travel to the islands to help implement their plans to build water collection and filtration systems for families there.

Working with NGOs

Walewijk, along with fellow class organizers and doctoral students Jen Burney and Molly Morse, has been working since January with two NGOs to identify their best opportunity to help residents of the Andamans. One is Volunteers for India Development and Empowerment (VIDE), a group founded by employees of Cisco Systems. VIDE seeks to empower grassroots organizations to provide innovative, sustainable and eco-friendly solutions to some of the pressing socio-economic problems in India. The other is the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS), working on the ground in the Andamans since two days after the tsunami to provide relief and to help rebuild homes and infrastructure. Students hope to join SEEDS staff in the Andaman city of Port Blair this summer to help install the systems they develop in class.

Among the more pressing needs on the islands are systems for collecting and filtering rain water to augment local water systems. In many Indian Ocean islands affected by the tsunami, civil infrastructure, such as fresh water systems, was damaged, and the waves of salt water often contaminated fresh water sources.

Luckily, water quality is an area in which Stanford's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has significant expertise. For example, department faculty member James Leckie, the C. L. Peck, Class of 1906 Professor of Engineering, is the principal investigator of the Clean Water Programme, a large multidisciplinary research effort evaluating aspects of water reclamation and recycling in Singapore. Many other professors focus on different aspects of water contamination and treatment.

Making it happen

During the class, which meets Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. during Spring Quarter, students will hear lectures by various Stanford engineering professors and will then get to work applying what they are learning to the urgent problem they are taking on—ensuring a safe and adequate supply of drinking water.

The class has been offered every quarter since spring 2004. In previous quarters the projects have ranged from designing a "green," or environmentally sustainable, school in Nicaragua to formulating a science education curriculum for rural villages in South Africa. Initial funds from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Haas Center for Public Service and the Stanford Institute for International Studies helped get the class off the ground.

This quarter, however, the class has taken on an urgent sense of mission. "We are especially excited about the project this quarter because there is a real opportunity to make a difference and help the victims of the tsunami disaster," says Boehm, the Clare Luce Boothe Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Three doctoral students—Walewijk, Burney and Morse—will be handing out the pass or fail grades to their fellow students at the end of the quarter. Students will be evaluated based on their papers, presentations and other projects.

When the pencils are down and the grades are in, the students plan for the work to go on. "An important part of the commitment we are making is to follow up our research with hard work in the Andamans," says Morse, who is the teaching assistant for the class. "We hope to go beyond the classroom to make a real difference."

- David Orenstein, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245,


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David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager for the School of Engineering.

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