AFCEC engineer works to bring clean water to rural Uganda

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • AFCEC Public Affairs
Chlorine production through salt water, electrodes and a car battery. It’s a simple technology that one AFCEC engineer hopes will soon have a life-changing impact on a people.

Six months ago, April Whitbeck, a program manager at AFCEC’s European Store Front at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, took a volunteer trip to Uganda to help bring clean water to a rural village. Now, she’s laying the ground work to go back and further her work.

Months before her trip to Uganda in June 2016, Whitbeck was attending a Society of Military Engineers event at Ramstein AB, Germany. It was then that a man who had travelled to the African nation on a Christian mission trip talked about the impoverished people of the country and the bacteria-filled water they were consuming every day.

The idea quickly arose to organize a group of engineers to travel to Uganda to help and Whitbeck said she didn’t hesitate to raise her hand and say, “Let’s go!”

“I think we all have our talents,” she said. “I’m not a singer but I can go and say, ‘here’s how to make chlorine and disinfect your water.’ It’s small. Our project will affect one system for 100 people or less … but to those 100 people, this can make the biggest difference.”

In the months between raising her hand and getting on an aircraft bound for Africa, Whitbeck and other military-affiliated engineers determined which technology they would be able to use to assist those in need.

The chlorine-based technology was nothing new or complicated, she said, rather it was a process that would work for the people of Uganda.

“Our biggest challenge when bringing that technology was adapting it to the people’s lifestyle,” she said. “I can’t add two hours of their time to disinfecting their water, it just won’t work. Just like boiling (water) takes a long time. We had to be very careful of implementing the technology with what would work in their lifestyle.”

Although the term “clean water” is a tough term, Whitbeck said what they were seeking to provide is better termed as disinfected water that would allow households to drink and use the water without fear of illness.

During her initial trip, funded by the Veolia Foundation, an organization that supports projects for disadvantaged populations around the world, Whitbeck and the rest of the SAME team tested the science of the system but didn’t deploy it.

“We ran in to an issue,” she said, because no one had been to the specific villages previously to see the water holes they were using.

“When we got down there, we realized the water is a lot dirtier … it has a lot more dirt and sediment.”

The chlorine in the system the engineers delivered kills the bacteria in the water, she explained, but the bacteria can hide behind the sediment.

“We did all this scientific testing and results show the chlorine disinfects the water for the first 30 minutes but bacteria is hiding behind the dirt and comes back at about an hour,” she said.

Since returning to Germany, the volunteer team has tested several prototypes for filters to get the dirt and sediment out of the water before it’s disinfected with consideration given to the cost of water filters to villagers. 

“Villagers can’t afford $200-300 every three months, every six months, or even every year so we are coming up with a solution that local people can build and maintain with local materials,” she said.

If they are able to find the funding, Whitbeck and other military engineers hope to travel back to Uganda in March to coincide with the region’s dry season.

When she arrived in Uganda, the AFCEC engineer said she understood very quickly that the people who lived thousands of miles away were much like those she sees in her everyday life.

Whitbeck says she hopes they are able to go back because she feels a strong draw to the African nation.

“The people are just like you and me,” she said. “They want their kids to be healthy. They want their kids to go to school. They know educating their children is the key to bringing them out of poverty and for advancement.

“People are people … we have the technology to give (them) clean water and it’s essential to life. Why should I have clean water when someone else doesn’t? It’s not that it’s the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.”