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Survey Technology Is Crucial to a West African Village’s Survival

Thu April 21, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jeff Winke

One of the most powerful symbols in the world is commonplace for many. Grab a glass, go to a faucet, and fill it with water.

Water is essential to life. It is considered a purifier in most religions. Water is essential to good health. Classical philosophers, pulling from the Greeks, will recite the four elements of earth, water, fire and air. It extinguishes fires, irrigates crops for food, and cleans away dirt and germs. Water is a strategic resource in the globe and an important element in many political conflicts.

Water is essential. Even living on a planet, which is 70 percent covered by water, there are communities where access to clean water is a struggle. To some, the glass of water poured earlier can represent affluence, entitlement, and success—a symbol of what the haves have and the have-nots do not.

In 2004, more than 1 billion people, 16 percent of the world population, did not have access to an improved water source, meaning that they have to revert to unprotected wells or springs, canals, lakes or rivers to fetch water.

Today, an African village of approximately 1,000 residents was able to join the haves, due to the generous help of a student chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB) and several professionals who functioned as mentors. The Yale University, New Haven, Conn., chapter of the “12,000-member group of socially-conscious engineers” had responded to a request from the African nation of Cameroon to work on a clean water system for the town of Kikoo.

Located in central Africa, Cameroon is called “Africa in miniature,” because of the diversity of its indigenous people. Sudanese and Fulbe in the north, the Bamileke and the Bamoun to the west, the Bantu, which include Douala, Bassa, Bafia, Fangs, Boulou, Ewondo and Eton, are located in the south and east. And Pygmies are found in the more remote forestlands.

Kikoo is located in northwest Cameroon. The community of Kikoo historically used water from polluted streams. These sources were exposed to contamination because they lie at the bottom of large valleys, and are unprotected from animal grazing, bathing and clothes-washing that occurs in the area. Some of the most common illnesses in the community are waterborne illnesses such as gastrointestinal infections and dysentery.

The Kikoo water project was begun in 2006 by the village and joined in 2007 by EWB. Through a survey and health assessment in April 2005, the Catholic Diocese’s Social Welfare Department from nearby Kumbo found that waterborne illnesses were a major problem in the Kikoo community. They contacted EWB-USA for technical and financial assistance, and have been working with the group ever since.

Quite simply, the goal for the Kikoo project was to design a gravity-fed system that features a sealed spring water-fed catchment box (which dams the water coming from a natural uncontaminated spring), a concrete storage tank that would hold the water, and a network of pipes to distribute the water to 12 publicly accessible standpipe water taps with galvanized iron faucets at prominent village sites, such as a church and a school. The Kikoo villagers would then be able to fill containers with clean, drinkable water to take back to their homes for use. Two additional standpipes will be constructed after the secondary storage tank is completed.

In January 2007, the Yale Student Chapter (EWB-YSC) conducted a technical assessment and terrain survey of the village. The group then designed a gravity-fed water distribution system including more than 4.3 mi. (7 km) of pipeline, 14 standpipes and two large storage tanks separated by 3.5 miles (5.5 km). Construction was initiated by local engineers and community members.

EWB-YSC traveled to Kikoo in August 2007 to assist in the construction of the main 1,200 gal. (4,500 L) concrete storage tank. In the most recent trip, in January 2010, EWB-YSC aided the construction of the second 1,000 gal. (3,800 L) storage tank, initiating the final construction phase of the project.

A mentor on this second trip brought his expertise and a crucial piece of technology to the project.

“The Yale chapter of EWB had contacted me in their search for mentors,” said Jeremy Smith, product specialist of Superior Instrument, Milldale, Conn., an authorized Topcon survey equipment dealer.

“From the description of the project at that point, I knew that I could help the Kikoo community and student engineers with obtaining the land survey data needed for finishing the water system.”

On the trip, Smith and Dave Sacco, an engineer with TPA Design Group, New Haven, Conn., were mentors for seven Yale undergraduate students, many of which have studied environmental engineering and fluid mechanics.

In the first two days of work in Kikoo, a team, led by Smith, conducted a land survey to confirm the proposed secondary tank elevation relative to the primary tank.

“The elevation of this secondary tank determines whether it can be supplied by water from the main tank and which standpipes it can service, so we decided that a careful topographical survey between the two tanks was a worthy use of our time,” Smith said.

A Topcon total station with an Fc-100 Topcon data collector using Topsurv software was used for the survey, which revealed the proposed secondary tank site to be 39 ft. (12 m) below the primary tank. This is a lower elevation than the one recorded on the earlier trip made by the Yale EWB team, on which the designs for the storage tank were based. The tank design was not changed by this new finding; at the new, lower elevation, the secondary storage tank will simply fill up at a faster rate, and the float valve should still be able to withstand the pressure of the system when the tank has reached capacity.

“We were able to complete a level run from the first storage tank to the location of the new storage tank,” Smith said. “We were also able to locate most of the standpipe’s throughout the village and a few key buildings within the village.”

The first setup was on top of where the first water tank is located. The elevation was originally determined by a handheld GPS system, since there are no surveyed benchmarks within 300 mi. (483 km) of Kikoo. At the time, this was the only option for obtaining an elevation.

“We were able to collect the standpipe’s location data with much better precision using the Topcon Total Station than what the handheld GPS device had shown,” Smith explained. “Once we had a point and direction, we where able to orientate our data with satellite data. Most of the satellite data for that region of the world is very crude so we were able to obtain much better information using the total station.

“We were also able to dig the hole for the secondary water tank more precisely and we used the Topcon data collector to create a slight slope at the bottom of the hole for water run off and tank drainage if ever needed. Normally, this would have been done with string lines, so we saved a tremendous amount of time — especially for the masons — and we captured a more accurate representation of the village of Kikoo. Using the Topcon technology took a lot of the guesswork out of the job had this equipment not been available to the village.”

Determining the lowest elevation in the system is important because that is where the water will reach its highest pressure. The drop from the first water tank to the lowest point was about 295 ft. (90 m).

The proper placement of the tanks and the network of piping is critical for ensuring the effectiveness of the water system. The community understands the system and the 27-person Kikoo Water Committee, chosen from members across the entire Kikoo community, is responsible for the overall upkeep and maintenance of the distribution system. Everyone in the village is entitled to the water provided by the system, and the water committee has already set an agreement for their rights to the water. In addition, each standpipe has a designated “president” who holds the key to the standpipe tap, and is responsible for turning the standpipes on for a period each day so households can collect their daily water supply. The limited access to the standpipes was instituted by the Water Committee to ensure that all standpipe users are paying their monthly dues and to prevent water from being wasted. When the standpipes were first installed young children would often play with the taps and leave them running continuously.

Smith and his team spent two-and-one-half weeks in Kikoo and they accomplished their goals.

“There is little if any professional-grade survey equipment in Cameroon, so having the Topcon equipment there helped immensely,” Smith said. “We were able to correct measurements that had been made by EWB on their 2007 visit where they had used a hand-held recreational GPS unit.”

Clearly, bonds were formed between the Americans and the local Kikoo community. There is talk about maintaining contact and potentially working with a neighboring community facing a similar need.

“It was certainly gratifying to ensure that the village has something that we take for granted: ready access to uncontaminated water,” Smith said.

Jeff Winke is a business and construction writer based in Milwaukee, Wis. He can be reached through

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