Engineering program continues to focus on water access in Dominican Republic

large group gathers under tree
The community around El Cercado, Dominican Republic, holds regular water council meetings to discuss issues of access and safety. Dr. Michael MacCarthy, pictured far right in a mask, made his last trip to the Dominican Republic in 2021. Photo courtesy Dr. Natalia Cardelino

Mercer University Minister Dr. Craig McMahan said the University’s overseas work started with “hugging babies and painting walls,” but the program has evolved to include more intentional and impactful work.

The Mercer On Mission program to the Dominican Republic is an example of projects that make a difference. In 2021 and 2022, the group that went to the Dominican Republic worked with local engineers to complete projects like water storage and piping that improved accessibility.

“This time we were able to enter into the project and see it from start to finish towards completion, and it will be able to hold 5,000 gallons of water, so that’s a pretty sizable project,” Dr. McMahan said.

Dr. Michael MacCarthy

The Mercer On Mission program in El Cercado, Dominican Republic, was started by the late Dr. Michael MacCarthy, who had a connection working in the country when he initiated the water access and safety work. The program has been going to the Dominican Republic for eight years.

Dr. MacCarthy, who was an associate professor of environmental and civil engineering and director of the engineering for development program at Mercer, died on Oct. 21, 2021, during a sabbatical. The water storage tank that he helped construct on his last trip to El Cercado in the summer of 2021 was dedicated to him during the 2022 trip.

“Since his passing, we’ve continued with other faculty members to develop that program,” Dr. McMahan said.

Dr. Natalia Cardelino, assistant professor of civil engineering, joined Dr. MacCarthy on the trip to El Cercado in 2021 and said that he “really understands groundwater, really understands what the issues are, and understands how to best help communities.”

School of Engineering students go to El Cercado to test water, build water systems, and survey the community to determine water systems that will fit best with their lifestyles. This year, they will also survey and interview community members about accessibility issues. The team leaves May 30 and will return June 20.

Dr. MacCarthy built a foundation of getting full community buy-in that continues to serve as a basis for the work that faculty and students do in El Cercado every year. Students attend the community’s water council meeting to see exactly what the community needs.

“That might dictate where we go, maybe one or two days while we’re there during the trip,” Dr. Cardelino said.

Along with building water tanks and piping the water to communities, students and staff that go to El Cercado train the community members.

“They’re very fascinated by when we’re testing the water, what we’re doing, and so we’ve trained them to do a little bit of the water testing as well,” Cardelino said.

Since students and faculty have a tight-knit relationship with the community, this specific Mercer On Mission program continues serving the El Cercado region. They are able to see the projects they help start continue and be completed even after returning to the U.S.

“Maybe a week after we come back, I get the text messages that it’s done,” Dr. Cardelino said.

A plaque on one of the water systems in the Dominican Republic pays tribute to Dr. Michael MacCarthy.
A plaque on one of the water systems in the Dominican Republic pays tribute to Dr. Michael MacCarthy. It says: “In memory of Professor Michael (Mike) MacCarthy. Thank you dear Michael for joining us for seven years in the construction of community aqueducts in: La Rancha, La Guama, Puertecito, Pedro Alejandro, Siembra Vieja, El Batey, and Los Caños, givi​ng life and pure and healthy water to many rural families. El Cercado, Dominican Republic, May 2022.” Photo courtesy Dr. Laura Moody

Even though residents in cities like Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, readily have access to water, rural communities like El Cercado have a more difficult time getting access to safe water.

“Sometimes the water has been shut off for reasons that nobody can understand. It’s just very different than what we’re used to,” Dr. Cardelino said.

Mercer engineering students have the opportunity to help with water access and safety issues not only when they are in El Cercado but also when they are back in Macon. The Cecil Day Family Center for International Groundwater Innovation, funded by a gift from Mercer alumna Deen Day Sanders, is the center for research for Mercer students to work on water accessibility.

Dr. Addie Buerck, assistant professor of environmental and engineering at Mercer and director of the Cecil Day Family Center said, “A big goal for me is to use the groundwater center as a hub, not only here on campus but for other organizations, and to merge our mission because water does impact everybody and can be looked at from so many perspectives.”

The Cecil Day Family Center also gave a gift that went toward the designing and building of a backpack-sized drill that is hoped to be finished by the end of this summer.

Dr. McMahan said, “with this backpack-sized drill, we can actually penetrate the hard rock with a much smaller hole, but we can bring water into the mountainous areas where people previously have not had access.”

Mercer On Mission has been running since 2007 when President William D. Underwood asked Dr. McMahan to start the program. It sends students and faculty to countries like Mexico, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and many others to contribute to impactful change in those areas.

A big circle of rocks
The late Dr. Michael MacCarthy began construction of this water storage tank during his 2021 trip to the Dominican Republic. The tank was later dedicated to him. Photo courtesy Keri Naccarato


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