Qurus, Tanzania—Falco’s Children Village, an orphanage made up of a quaint cluster of stucco homes in the remote area of Qurus, Tanzania. Here where power is scarce, and water is transported by horse and cart, dignitaries and local leaders gathered a few years ago to commemorate the opening of this orphanage. Unfortunately, that was the day the wastewater problems began to surface.
Within moments of the orphanage guests arriving the wastewater system was failing. What to do with the wastewater when traditional techniques were not suitable for the conditions, proved to be an ongoing struggle.
In December 2017, Falco’s Children Village approached Anderson Engineering, headquartered in Saratoga Springs, Utah, seeking help to resolve the issues associated with their wastewater. Anderson Engineering elected to sponsor a trip to the village to provide an engineered solution.
It was the health and safety of the children that compelled Steve Anderson, principal of Anderson Engineering to offer to provide the service. “As a company, we had the knowledge and skills to diagnose and engineer a solution,” he said.
In January 2017, Anderson Engineering assembled a volunteer team a Civil Engineers and a Landscape Architect who traveled to Falco’s Children Village in Tanzania.
Falco’s Children Village Background
The orphanage idea occurred a few years earlier when Jerry and Tammy Backus moved to Tanzania to open a Bible school. Within a few days of getting to the country, a little girl was dropped off at their doorstep whom they welcomed into their home.
The experience inspired them to replace the Bible school plans with the orphanage.
Of the 42 million people in Tanzania, 2.5 million are orphans under the age of 15. Jerry and Tammy looked at the situation and said, “we can either complain about it or do something about it.” They subsequently created Falco’s Children Village, a unique orphanage designed to be a loving home for these vulnerable children.
From the beginning the Backus’ tried to integrate the orphanage into the local community. They partnered with the government to have land donated, used local labor to construct the homes, operate the farms, and have a full-time staff from the local area. The vision was to create a sustainable orphanage that is self-sufficient and able to achieve lasting progress for years into the future.
Part of sustainability was determining what to do with the wastewater issue.
The contractors who constructed the village had built the wastewater system based on how it was done elsewhere in Tanzania—using a large seepage pit. Except, in this case, the pit was not draining. Over the next few years, more pits, trenches, and tanks were built to increase the system capacity. Despite all the additional storage, the wastewater surfaced.
Several times a week, the orphanage was forced to have the tanks pumped out and sprayed across the surface. A costly solution that consumed precious solar generated power and potentially spread harmful pathogens across the surface.
When the Anderson Engineering team arrived, they spent the first few days evaluating the existing wastewater system. “The soil over most of the site was poorly drained silts, directly above a layer of sandy soils and ash caliche,” Team Member Corey said. “We concluded that the existing system was severely undersized for the soil profile. Not only was the system failing, but it also had the potential to impact local groundwater creating a health hazard.”
After evaluating the existing system and site constraints, the team identified the following objectives:
- Create a sustainable system that would treat water passively, without the need for electricity/mechanical equipment to operate.
- Have zero impact on the local groundwater drinking water supply,
- Utilize soil, oxygen, water, and plants to provide the treatment needed.
Right away it was necessary for the team to understand the local topography and groundwater flow. They used a drone to capture the aerial mapping data required to generate topographic maps and determine groundwater flow.
The second step was to determine the existing soil profile’s capacity for passive treatment. The team accomplished this by carrying out soil exploration, percolation, pH, and soil conductivity tests.
Test results were used to perform engineering calculations and size the new treatment system. Once calculations were complete, the design phase began.
Team member Ryan recalled, “The greatest challenge was to design a system that incorporated the available but limited native materials and local construction resources.”
Through a combined team effort and use of their collective knowledge, skills, and resources, the team designed a system that accomplished the set goals. The design resulted in a three-stage treatment process:
Stage One: Biological treatment system consisting of solids separation.
Stage Two: Adequate resident time for primary waste reduction through a biological and anaerobic breakdown.
Stage Three: Discharge into eight absorption trenches for final treatment that utilizes soil, plants, and oxygen.
“The existing system is in soils that are not adequate for wastewater distribution and treatment, Corey said. “Through our engineering tests, we were able to locate an ideal area for final treatment. Each trench was filled with gravel and contained a perforated pipe for distribution. Custom drop boxes were designed and built to distribute water using gravity down the sloped area.”
Ryan explained that step three was all about creating a condition where nature can clean the water itself. “Our goal is just to use science and engineering to develop a situation where the microbial ecosystem can thrive and work on removing contaminants and impurities from the water,” Ryan said. “It is remarkable what nature can do when the conditions are right.”
Following the design process, Falco’s Children Village hired a 55 person crew to begin construction of the system. The team spent the final days of the trip helping teach the technicians and crew how to construct the system.
“Once complete grasses will be planted over the entire area, and the village will utilize the ground surface as a volleyball court and retreat activity area,” Ryan explained.
The most satisfying part of the project for the team was the opportunity to train Tanzania youth in science and engineering, so they can take ownership and develop solutions of their own.
“Utah has an excellent on-site wastewater program based on research from Utah State University’s well-respected water research lab,” Corey said. “This opportunity allowed us to take some of those best practices and share them with the technicians at the village.” The team worked side by side with the technicians helping them understand the science behind the construction methods.
“We hope that the technicians will take what they learned while working with us and apply it to other wastewater projects they are hired to construct,” Corey said.
Likewise, the technicians taught the Anderson team how to do more with less. “I think we could learn a lot from Africa concerning innovation and frugality,” Ryan said. “I was impressed at some of the ways they accomplished tasks with simple tools and methods.”
Corey said one of his motives for studying engineering was to learn how to bring basic infrastructure to those who need it most, though he had never imagined building a system in Africa. He said one of the most significant rewards of the trip was when one of the older children at the village told him that she now wanted to be an engineer to learn how to help build a better Tanzania. “I hope she reaches her dream; she could do a lot of good for Tanzania.”
“The trip was a remarkable experience, Falco’s Children Village is a great place,” Ryan said. The children are so loving and have a very bright future. We hope that the system we designed and installed can become a model of how wastewater issues in remote African areas can be resolved through an intelligent, passive, and sustainable design.”