Team Fiji

Bringing access to clean drinking water to the rural parts of the world

"Team Fiji" with their host family.


Cami Lowrey, a fourth-year bioresource and agricultural engineering major, plans to one day work on development projects in rural, under-resourced areas. This past summer she had the opportunity to put that vision into action in Fiji as a member of Cal Poly Engineers Without Borders.

The student-led nonprofit organization supports community-driven development programs worldwide through the design and implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while creating multidisciplinary and leadership experiences for students. Lowrey joined the club her freshman year.

A solar borehole pump being installed at a reservoir in Vesi.

Cami Lowery gathered around the new rain
water barrel with local children.

In August, Lowrey joined three other students for the 5,539-mile trek to Fiji, a country of more than 300 islands in the South Pacific Ocean. Geneva Newell, fourth-year civil engineering major, Andrew Klein, fourth-year electrical engineering major, and Jillian Buteau, third-year civil engineering major, also made the journey. Peter Livingston, head of the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department, and Dawn Neill, head of Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education, at Cal Poly accompanied the students.

The trip, focused on improving the current water supply systems of three Fijian communities – Nakawaga, Ligaulevu and Vesi, on the northern island of Mali – was years in the making. The initial request for assistance was made by one of the federal representatives for the island, Seru Moce, in 2017. “This project was done in partnership with the community,” Lowrey said. “This was a collaborative effort to help the villagers implement a project that they could both take ownership of and be proud of.”

In the years prior to the trip the Cal Poly team, dubbed “Team Fiji,” worked to build a plan that would increase the villages’ rain catchment capacity, install a solar pump system at an existing borehole and design user-friendly portable sand filters that villagers can construct on their own. “COVID-19 delayed our ability to travel to the site but the work never stopped,” said Lowrey. “I spent the years prior to the trip designing biosand filters that would improve the quality of the water being used by the community.”

Lowrey and the team spent a month on the island, living with villagers who rely on fishing and weaving for their livelihoods. The team installed 1,000-liter tanks at homes that would provide fresh drinking water to those who live there. Each of the three rural communities, totaling 71 households, rely heavily on rainwater as a source of fresh drinking water because the nearby stream has long been polluted.

“I was constantly learning the entire time, while having fun,” Lowrey said. “From engaging with the Fijian culture and the people there, to learning their market to purchase the needed supplies and troubleshooting on the spot, it was an experience I will always remember. My favorite part of the trip was listening and learning.”

Lowrey arrived in Fiji prepared with a list of materials she planned to purchase based off research she had done before arriving of available products at Fijian hardware stores. However, despite careful planning, not everything was available. “I sat in the corner of the hardware store, surrounded by customers, making it work,” she said. “I put everything I had learned in my classes into practice knowing that the villages we were assisting were depending on us.”

Materials were purchased on the main island and villagers transported the items by boat to the smaller islands. The Cal Poly team followed.

In addition to installing improved rainwater catchment tanks at homes and the local school site, the team developed a first flush diversion system to assist with diverting contaminated water from the tanks and implemented filter systems that households could easily use to ensure that their drinking water is safe.

The team also installed a solar borehole pump at a water reservoir in Vesi – something that community had been wanting for more than two decades. “The entire community came out to celebrate on the day that we installed it,” Lowrey said. “They are now looking into sourcing more of them for future needs.”

Village children were taught how to use water filter systems that were provided to every home. Team Fiji also used field testing kits to test water tanks for dangers like E. coli and salinity. Those findings were then used at community meetings to instill the importance of safe drinking water.

In all, 32 water tanks, gutter collection systems, and individual home filter systems were installed during the four weeks the Cal Poly team was there. The solar pump, solar panel, and associated wiring and pipeline will ensure that the village has a reliable water supply – something that the community had never had.

“While the primary benefit to the community was a firm supply of safe water, the secondary benefits are the ability to now increase population in villages and the reduction of standing water that will reduce mosquito population and associated diseases,” said Livingston. “Our students did the research and the work, making impactful changes that the villages can now carry on into the future.


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