Dennis Truax, head of Mississippi State University's Bagley College of Engineering civil and environment engineering department, speaks to Starkville Rotary Club members Monday. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
September 26, 2017 10:57:02 AM
For the past five years, Dennis Truax has been taking students to a small province in the southern African county of Zambia each summer to drill and assemble water wells.
The project was adopted by the Mississippi State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Truax, who is the head of the MSU Bagley College of Engineering civil and environmental engineering department, serves as the faculty adviser for the MSU EWB chapter.
On Monday, he spoke to the Starkville Rotary Club, which helped fund the project that cost about $100,000 and resulted in the creation of nine wells.
Truax and his students made their last trip to the province of Simwatachela, Zambia, this summer to do a final assessment of the program.
"Since (Rotary) helped sponsor this project, I wanted to come and share what we learned from our assessment," Truax said. "We achieved a level of success far beyond what we imagined when we started. It was a life-changing experience in a lot of ways."
The four-to-six students who worked on the project each summer probably didn't learn much about engineering -- the wells they installed were the kind of simple hand-operated pump wells that have been around for generations -- but learned plenty about the impact engineering can have on people's lives.
"It completely changed everything I wanted to do," said Laura Wilson of Diamondhead, a former EWB chapter president who worked on four of the five trips to Zambia and is now pursuing her Ph.D. in civil and environmental education at MSU. "Before college I knew I wanted to get involved in some sort of project like this, but I had no idea it would completely change my career aspect like it has. I want to work in some sort of international development. I would love to be able to specialize in water supply in developing countries. So this changed my perspective on my career, but also my perspective on life."
Truax said the wells are making profound impacts on the lives of the roughly 7,000 people.
"You don't think about all the ways having access to clean water affects people's lives," Truax said. "As a result of these wells, people are healthier, have a more stable food supply and are even better educated."
Truax said prior to the wells, the main sources for water were shallow, hand-dug reservoirs which captured rainwater needed to sustain residents during the eight-month long dry season.
"They were muddy, quite silty and contaminated," Truax said.
The other option was to walk long distances to existing wells outside the area.
"What we heard is that it wasn't at all uncommon for children, particularly girls, when they reached the age of about 4 to carry water," Truax said. "For the next 10 years or so, that's all they do, seven days a week, eight-to-10-to-12 hours a day. They had no life, no opportunities, no prospects. That is all they did until they reached the age of 14 and were viable as wives and moved away."
Now, Truax said, the girls are attending school.
"Once water comes close by, where it takes only about 15-20 minutes to get water, that young lady all the sudden ends up in school, becomes educated, becomes an entrepreneur," Truax said. "Everywhere we put a well, we heard the same thing: 'Our general health is better. We're not having diarrhea and intestinal problems. Our food is better. Our kids are in school now.'"
Wilson said the experience has made her appreciated the remarkable spirit of the Zambian people.
"We take for granted that we can just turn on a faucet for water," she said. "What was most amazing to me was to see how much they do with so little and, more than that, how grateful and happy they are."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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