A small Haitian village that was hit hard by cholera is getting water and sanitation services for the first time thanks to a group of Clemson University students who are designing and helping build new systems from scratch.

One of the latest projects in Cange is a “biodigester” that processes potentially dangerous human waste, turning it into fertilizer for banana trees and methane gas that fuels stoves in a communal kitchen.

Aaron Gordon, left, pauses for a picture while working in Haiti.

Aaron Gordon, left, pauses for a picture while working in Haiti.

The biodigester is part of a wider commitment to Haiti by Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries. The award-winning group installed Haiti’s first chlorinated municipal water system in Cange in 2012 and the first water testing laboratory in the Central Plateau in 2014.

Members are now working with the Haitian government in hopes of improving infrastructure to provide clean water and sanitation to communities across the country. They could soon begin building smaller versions of the biodigester in communities near Cange.

Aaron Gordon, a junior civil engineering major, will return to Clemson in August after serving as an engineering intern in Haiti for seven months.

Gordon said that the biodigester has replaced pit latrines, making a nearby school and the whole village a safer place.

“As people get used to such high sanitation, we may find it difficult to imagine not ever having access to these facilities,” Gordon said. “For Haitians, the ability to use this advanced piece of technology is huge and cannot be underestimated.”

Jennifer Ogle, an associate professor of civil engineering, said the Cange biodigester has proven so successful that residents of other communities have asked for their own versions.

“We were really excited to see the Haitians asking for these facilities,” she said. “What we’re trying to do now is figure out the proper proportions and size of the biodigester bags for smaller installations.”

The concept for the Cange biodigester derived from systems developed by Biobolsa Systems in Mexico City. Research and development was done at the University of Maryland. The project was funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina and done in cooperation with United States Agency for International Development.

Students for Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries helped design the system and worked with Haitians to build and maintain it.

The system includes modern toilets and sinks that would be familiar to anyone in the United States. But when you flush, the waste goes into a series of three biodigester bags behind the building.

Microbes in the bags break down the waste, turning it into fertilizer. Collection bags above the biodigester bags capture the methane gas that can be burned as fuel.

“At the onset of the project, we realized that we had an unreliable power grid and no money to pay for electricity,” said David Vaughn, who is president of Integrated Resilience and industry adviser to Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries.

“It became apparent that we could not view this problem through our ‘first world lenses’ and we had to develop new approaches. By using our newfound  ‘developing world lenses,’ we have been able to create a net positive energy system, that conforms to international codes and has an 99.998 percent efficacy against known pathogens such as cholera and E.coli.”

The system requires no pumps or electricity. The building that houses the toilets was built on the side of a hill and the roofs are sloped with an opening at the top to create a natural chimney effect for improved ventilation. Skylights provide natural lighting. Gravity keeps the water and effluent flowing.

“The system uses natural forces to solve real world problems,” Vaughn said.

James Martin, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, said the program helps differentiate Clemson from other universities.

“We’re redefining how civil engineering is taught,” Martin said. “By taking lessons out of the classroom and into the field, we’re showing students how their work can have a global impact on real clients. It keeps them motivated to progress in their education.”

For Gordon, living in Haiti has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

It has put life in perspective, he said. The big problem in Clemson is having to wake up for an 8 a.m. class, but Haitians have more basic worries, such as finding a job to support a family, hiking six miles to a market to buy food and waiting in line for days with a sick child to see a doctor, Gordon said.

Gordon, who is from Bethesda, Maryland, has also made some personal connections in the Haiti and found some surprising similarities to Clemson.

Haitians are just as passionate about soccer as Clemson students are about American football, he said. Both Haitians and Clemson students work out, but in Cange they repurpose car parts as weights.

“At this Haitian gym, there are three broken pieces of mirror glued to the outside of a concrete wall,” Gordon said. “They are no bigger than a checkerboard, but all the Haitians still pick up their weights and work out directly in front of these mirrors just like all the Clemson students at Fike (Recreation Center). It is hilarious. No matter where you are, you have to work out in front of a mirror.”

Clemson’s work in Haiti started when Jeff Plumblee, who was then a graduate student, crossed paths with the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. The diocese was working to upgrade Cange’s 30-year-old water system.

Plumblee and six other civil engineering students began design work on a new water system in 2009.  A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port Au Prince a few months later, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

While Cange suffered little damage, the population swelled as earthquake survivors migrated to the region in search of medical treatment.

Then came the cholera epidemic, hitting the Central Plateau particularly hard. The outbreak sickened about 680,000 people, killing more than 8,300 across the country.

The lack of sanitation and water-filtration in Cange and the surrounding villages enabled the quick spread of cholera, an infectious disease.

Students and villagers worked together to finish the water system, installing the third pump in October 2012. It includes a new dam, a filtration building, six miles of piping, eight fountains, two new cisterns and two reconditioned cisterns, all housing more than 200,000 gallons of water.

Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries also brings together students from different disciplines to work together.

Engineers and a microbiologist joined forces to design and install the water testing laboratory in Cange. When engineering students needed someone to write pamphlets, they recruited other students who were majoring in English. The project receives funding from multiple sources, so students majoring in finance handle the money.

“This simply proves that multidisciplinary teams can and are changing the world,” Plumblee said.

About 350 students have participated in the program. Four interns are in the field year round, and another 10-12 students go to Haiti for a week every fall and spring break to perform data collection and help push projects forward.

The program won a 2014 Andrew Heiskell Award in the study-abroad category.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science, said that the program strikes at the core of a grand challenge facing society this century.

“Nearly 800 million people around the world do not have access to clean water, and nearly 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation,” he said. “Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries not only keeps students engaged and motivated, but also begins to provide solutions to those who need them most.”