Chewing gum for water

May 18, 2007

That chewing gum stuck to your shoe may have started out life as a Candelilla plant in a dry, dusty corner of northeastern Mexico. Kettering students are trying to help bring life-giving water to a community that relies on the Candelilla for income.

Every time you unwrap that fruity or minty stick of chewing gum you complete the last link in the supply-and-demand chain that starts in places like Estanque De Leon, in northern Mexico, an arid, parched place that is home to the Candelilla plant.

Candelilla plants only grow in drought conditions, but require large quantities of water for the initial stage of processing to extract a high-quality wax used in chewing gum, cosmetics, electric insulators and adhesives.

This dichotomy of drought and water poses a challenge for people in the village of Estanque De Leon, and hundreds of villages like it, who harvest and begin processing the fibrous plant. They live in an area where it only rains one month each year and water resources virtually run out by April. Every day they must choose to use limited water resources to process the Candelilla to earn a living or use the water for drinking and cooking.

The Engineers Without Borders (EWB)-A Section group at Kettering identified Estanque De Leon for a project intended to produce potable drinking water from local resources, namely a small reservoir they assumed had water in it year round.

Four EWB-A members, and Kettering's director of Environmental Health and Safety, traveled to the village in April to assess the water quality and test potential water purifying techniques.

"We were expecting water to always be in the reservoir," said sophomore Claire Utrecht of Cincinnati, Ohio. "We were going there to figure out a way to treat the water. The scope of our project totally changed," she said, after the group was able to see the nature of water resources, or lack thereof, in Estanque De Leon.

(to view a video of photos from the trip visit )

There was not one reservoir but six, four earthen and two concrete-lined, an above-ground steel rain collection tank and an elongated water trap - all dry except for 1.5 feet of water in one of the concrete reservoirs, according to Nadine Thor, Kettering's director of Environmental Health and Safety. Because of a lack of training and education for the local people, those projects have fallen into disrepair.

"We were shocked to find out they were completely dry," added senior Mario Flores of Saltillo, Mexico. "They hadn't had rain for more than five months, the reservoirs were all but dry and they were about to run out of water in a matter of days."

"We left school pursuing three different options; pumping water from a well or other water source, drilling a new well and treating existing water," said Utrecht. "Pumping isn't feasible because the nearest water source is at a lower elevation and 25 miles away. Drilling is now under PRODERCO as a long term solution. So, now our aims are to continue with water treatment and develop better ways for collection," she explained. (PRODERCO is La Promotora para el Desarrollo Rural de Coahuila, a local governmental authority.)

"The water available to this community comes from rain that only occurs during September each year," said Dr. Laura Sullivan, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering University and faculty adviser for both student chapters of EWB. "The key to having water in this community is three-fold, collecting the rain, conserving throughout the year and filtering and purifying it so it is safe to drink."

In addition to developing more effective methods of collecting and treating water, the Kettering students are collaborating with students from the Autonomous University of Coahuila (Universidad Autonoma de Coahuila - UAdeC) in Saltillo, Mexico, to address social and cultural issues.

"In order for the community to improve their current lifestyle, a lot of changes have to take place," said Flores. "We will start with the water project, but it won't end there. Our partner groups (at UAdeC) will continue to improve their living conditions in terms of health and social issues and will verify the sustainability of our solution. I think that once the community embraces the water project as their own, and are able to sustain it themselves, it will bring them hope and progress," he added.

Back at work (A-section is currently on their cooperative work rotation), the EWB-A group is using email and teleconferencing to design a solution to the water collection and purification problems and planning more fundraisers for their next on-campus term to finance the implementation trip.

"We never stop," said Utrecht, "the team is putting together an application due May 31 for the Mondialogo Engineering Award (a 20,000 Euro award for engineering proposals by students designed to improve the quality of life in the developing world, particularly poverty eradication and the promotion of sustainable development), and during Greek Week this summer, EWB and Intra-Fraternity Council are holding a 'Pie in the Face' charity event, that will benefit EWB projects and we'll also be raffling off a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle for further funds for the trip," she said.

"We've only been back for two weeks, we are already brainstorming and we will start putting together the application for our implementation trip that needs to be submitted to the EWB national office after we finish the Mondialogo application. Once that is approved, we plan to go back to Mexico with a solution next work term (October 2007)," Utrecht added.

With their sights set on making positive and lasting changes for the people of Estanque De Leon, the students also recognize the positive and lasting changes they are undergoing.

"It has given me hope in the power of people, both in the community of Estanque De Leon and at Kettering," said Flores. "I have always had this idea that I would do something for other people and not work just for myself. It's certainly opening doors and opening my eyes to different opportunities," he added.

For Utrecht the experience has had a very strong impact on how she envisions her future. "It has affected me more than I could have possibly imagined," she said. "Before the trip I hadn't yet begun to think about life after college. Since the trip, I've been looking at joining the Peace Corps, something that I had never even considered before.

"Now I'm practically hell-bent on getting involved in the Fellows program with the Peace Corps which is a regular 27-month tour, followed by a graduate studies program," she admitted.

What they all have in common, even the students who did not travel to Mexico, is their commitment to putting their Engineering education to use making the world a better place. The EWB-A group is launching a project in Flint, Mich., to build wheelchair ramps for low-income people in addition to the Mexico project. And, EWB-B Section is also looking at a water project in Honduras planned for when they complete their current project constructing a playground destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

And making a global issue more local, as an offshoot to the Estanqe De Leon project, Sullivan is working on developing a fair trade education program for the Kettering community. The program would provide information on issues related to fair trade and raise awareness of how individuals can make changes through fair trade.

"If an individual understands more about fair trade and why it's important, how much of a difference it can make," said Sullivan, "they can see how their actions can become a movement of people, and a movement of people can accomplish a lot. If a person only buys fair trade coffee beans it's a start - then they find out about fairly traded chocolate, clothing, etc. and it builds from there," she added.

To donate to the EWB-A project in Estanque De Leon, contact Dr. Laura Sullivan at or Matt Schwartz at

Written by Dawn Hibbard
(810) 762-9865