Buckeyes committed to solving Marwa's water crisis

A group of students posing in front of a borehole drilling site.
Ohio State engineers and students from the University of Dodoma visit the borehole drilling site in Njakati, Tanzania.

In the remote Tanzanian village of Marwa, women and young girls spend up to five hours each day walking to the Pangani River to collect the water their families need to survive.

Since 2016, faculty, students and alumni from The Ohio State University College of Engineering have been working to help address Marwa’s water crisis and bring clean, sustainable water to the rural community of approximately 5,000 people. Over 150 Ohio State students have traveled to the region to collaborate on project efforts with the community, government officials, the Kilimanjaro Hope Organization, and faculty and students from the University of Dodoma, Tanzania.


They are inspired by the words of former Marwa Village Chair Elephra Mason, “By bringing water to Marwa, our lives will change forever.”

Led by Associate Dean Michael Hagenberger, the effort that began as a single student capstone project in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering has evolved into the multi-faceted Sustainable and Resilient Community – Tanzania (SRC-Tanzania) program encompassing the Global Capstone Design course, community-engaged learning courses and undergraduate research projects.

The trip was part of a community-engaged learning course that provides students with a global experience and develops their intercultural competency. The highlight was seeing the community’s excitement when the drilling rig hit water in the first of several planned boreholes.

“Women and children will no longer have to walk more than seven kilometers (over four miles), risking their safety each way to collect water at the nearest water source,” said Marwa Village Chair Zafanir, describing the impact of the new water source.

While the boreholes won’t quench all of Marwa’s water needs, they are an important step to increasing the community’s access to water. The ultimate vision for solving Marwa’s water issues is a gravity-powered water treatment and distribution system for the entire community, Hagenberger said, but it will require substantial funds and additional local support.

A borehole drilling site hits water.
Ohio State engineers were able to witness when, after many ours of drilling, the rig hit water.

“The goal is that by the end of 2024, they have a thriving borehole with a lot of clean water and a storage and distribution system,” he explained. “Does that solve their water problem? No. That's going to solve 10% of their current water problem. But it's a start.”

While in Tanzania, Buckeye engineering students learned about the rural water supply and the daily lives of Marwa villagers. They also teamed up with Tanzanian students from the University of Dodoma to discuss future project steps with residents.

“My group focused on water security, so we talked to the community about what plans they have in the future to make sure people have continued, sustainable access to this borehole,” recalled environmental engineering major Katie Vatke. “We asked, ‘Do you have plans in place for security measures, for maintenance, for upkeep?’ But we’re coming at it from an anthropological lens, like a community partner.”

Vatke was also thrilled to see several improvements since visiting Marwa in 2022 with alumni as part of her undergraduate involvement in the Humanitarian Engineering Minor program.

“In the year that had passed, the community had built another school building and improved sanitation with more permanent bathrooms, which is really exciting,” she said.

For Hagenberger and SRTC-Tanzania co-leader Patrick Sours, a senior lecturer in the college, teaching students how to be a community partner is critical to the long-term success of humanitarian engineering projects.

“We are committed to working with the people of Marwa, and building their capacity and skills, and with local government officials so that the contributions we share are sustainable,” Hagenberger said.

Students also examined three rainwater collection systems and water storage tanks Buckeyes previously helped install on Marwa’s medical clinic and two school buildings. These systems eliminate the burden of villagers needing to pay for or bring water to use the clinic or attend school. Before, children had to walk to the Pangani River prior to class to collect water to take to school.

A group of students gathered near a rainwater harvesting tank.
Patrick Sours (center, with hat and sunglasses) discusses the rainwater collection system installed on Marwa's primary school building.

“We found out from the teachers that after the Marwa school got their rainwater collection tank, all of the kids had passed their third-grade exam for the first time,” Vatke explained. “Having the tank next to the school building means that kids can just come and use the water from there.”

Vatke is one of several Ohio State students who conduct research on related projects in the Humanitarian Engineering Innovation Lab, including sand filtration for water treatment systems, pumping and distribution systems for the boreholes, and conceptual designs for new projects requested by community partners.

“Students provide the technical expertise in developing the schematic and conceptual designs,” Hagenberger explained. “Final designs are always in collaboration with the in-country partners and people who are actually going to build the structures, provided we have the funding available.”

Much of the funding for past water projects has been donated by caring supporters, especially engineering alumni, faculty and staff. Since 2018 donors have generously given more than $100,000 to support water access projects in Marwa.

Following their visit to Marwa, Hagenberger and five fellow Buckeyes climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro—Africa’s highest mountain—to raise awareness for Marwa’s water challenges. Ninety-seven donors gave $25,115 during an accompanying fundraising campaign, which will pay for the drilling of a second borehole and a water storage tank.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without alumni support,” Hagenberger said. “Our alumni are some of our biggest supporters, whether it's financial or time. People have given their professional time, their personal time. They are always looking for and finding ways to give back.”

Several alumni volunteers are mentors for the Global Capstone course. They attend class to assist students with projects and share their experiences in Marwa to help recruit new students. A group of grads even traveled to Marwa in 2022 to engage with the community.

Hearing Buckeyes describe their experiences in Marwa illustrates why students who participate in the program remain engaged long after graduation.

“Getting that experience and actual practice with identifying the needs of a community by working with them as one-to-one partners was something that we’ve been taught and we know,” said Kameron Fry ’23, who also traveled to Marwa in August. “But getting to actually do it changed my entire engineering perspective.”

Make a gift to help bring clean, sustainable water to Marwa.

 - by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu