U-M students help Indian villages meet water needs


More than 100,000 people die in India each year from waterborne diseases, but a group of U-M students is hoping to make a difference.

The students, who call themselves the BLUElab India team, traveled to India’s western state of Gujarat in early May to survey water needs to help them design filtration and storage technology.

“It involves going to different villages and mapping their water needs,” said team co-leader Mike McGahren Clemens, a junior in chemical engineering. “Where does the water come from? What are its uses everyday and how is it disposed?”

The groundwater in a third of India’s 600 districts is not fit for drinking because the concentration of fluoride, iron, salinity and arsenic exceeds the tolerance levels.

Bluelab India members Zoha Momin, Erica Dombro, Mitchell Borchers and Jon Minion survey a water well. (Photo by Gayatri Bhatt)

BLUElab India got its start a year ago after connecting with College of Engineering alumnus Harish Sheth, who encouraged the students to think about a project in India. He also offered to help with his SETCO Foundation, which focuses on health care, education and empowerment. 

The group was in India during a hot and noisy time of the year. May is wedding season in India, and the festivities usually include a loud boombox belting out songs. The students saw a few weddings in the village and soon got used to the music as they went about their daily work.

The heat was another matter.

“One day we were surveying a well in someone’s backyard and it was the hottest day in our stay. I was jumping from shadow to shadow the whole time we did the water survey,” said team co-leader Erica Dombro.

A key component for the survey was building relationships with the local townspeople.

“We had to overcome a language barrier. Even their English was different,” said Jon Minion, a sophomore in LSA.

They spent time with the village kids playing Frisbee and even picked up some cricket skills along the way.

“This really helped us to be seen less as a novelty and more as a member of the community. The crowd that followed us around in the beginning went away,” Minion said.

They also met plenty of inspiring villagers, including Moongo Behn, a widow who built her life as a small-business owner after her husband died. When the students organized a town hall in the village, she was the first one to welcome them.

“She is an incredible force and a positive role model for the women of the village,” Dombro said.

The team also tried to overcome the class barrier that usually divides Indian society.

“Whenever we went to someone’s house, hosts offered us chairs and sat on the floor. We decided to sit on the floor with the hosts,” said Dombro, adding that it helped them build bridges with the villagers.

The villagers were also very generous with the students. They were invited to various mango farms where they had their fill of mangos.

“It was so delicious, we couldn’t stop eating them,” said Zoha Momin, an economics major who speaks Hindi and Gujarati, and has been helping the team navigate the language barrier.

As the team gathered information, it became clear that along with water filtration, there were a range of issues that needed attention. Primary among them were sewer drainage and women’s health.

“Even though we were thinking of water filtration initially, we will revisit it as a group,” said Dombro, a mechanical engineering major.

In the fall, the students will regroup in Ann Arbor with the analysis and conclusions from their survey. After they decide which problem to focus on, they will spend the next year building a concrete technology and then implement it in summer 2015.

The group also has another plan — connecting kids in Ann Arbor with children in Gujarat.

“We want to expose kids to different cultures and have them interact with each other,” Dombro said.


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