3 minute read


Since the 2019 rollout of the U.S. Migrant Protection Protocols, thousands of asylum seekers from Central and South America have made Matamoros, Mexico, their home. Though their stay was to be temporary, many have been there for a year or more as they await hearings across the river in Brownsville, Texas. At least 1,000 people are still living in a muddy camp along the banks of the Rio Grande, where there are persistent problems with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). After learning of the situation through a podcast of This American Life, Sustainable Engineering graduate student Christa Cook ’20 MSSE emailed onsite medical services provider Global Response Management and a relationship and humanitarian engineering initiative was born.

First traveling to the site in December 2019, three Villanova graduate students sought to analyze the camp’s WASH resources and infrastructure with an eye toward future improvements. This is what they found:

• Insufficient showers and portable toilets that failed to meet the standards of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

 • No formal water distribution method for two emergency water kiosks with storage tanks that treated water from the Rio Grande and five more that were filled by water trucks

• Electricity access limited to only one electricity pole that was almost exclusively used to charge cell phones

• Cooking stoves made from clay that lead to deforestation since trees were the only viable fuel source

• Housing in camping tents, with three to five people per tent

• Trash management consisting of only a few trashcans, resulting in most trash being thrown on the ground

The imperative was clear. “While GRM provides innovative and efficient solutions to medical needs, no one was addressing the logistical aspects of the situation,” says Dr. Jordan Ermilio ’98 ME, ’06 MSWREE, PE, RPCV, director of Villanova’s Center for Humanitarian Engineering and International Development. “Medicine doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and health care and infrastructure often go hand in hand,” adds GRM Director of Operations Blake Davis. Recognizing that Villanovans could fill the gap, a partnership was formed.

The relationship between Global Response Management and Villanova played a significant role in GRM forming an engineering team “to increase response capacity in high-risk, low-resource humanitarian efforts.” Founded by Cook, Erin Hughes and Chloe Rastatter, this new component of the organization is dedicated to community-based, innovative, cost-efficient solutions to infrastructure problems globally. Their work has included computer engineering and Arduino coding to create open-access, affordable, high-fidelity medical training models, and utilizing Geographic Information Systems to help track deployed disaster response teams. “The engineering team has a wide range of capabilities and expertise that allows them to uniquely address the needs of vulnerable populations while utilizing technology for the greater good,” says Davis. Presently, that expertise is being applied to designing and implementing WASH solutions in Matamoros.

Within six months after arriving on site, the GRM engineering team had made significant improvements:

• A layout for a COVID field hospital, isolation area and quarantine zone

• 88 handwashing sinks whose design was shared with the UNHCR and implemented at camps throughout Central America

 • 41 showers to replace bucket showers

• Vital filters for providing clean water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing

• Potable water access points and asylum-seeker run maintenance crews

• School construction assistance

The team also fundraised for stormwater management and flood mitigation supplies after the first major storm of the rainy season flooded nearly every tent, destroying personal possessions and making the camp inaccessible due to mud. They dug drainage channels, lined the streets with more than 200 tons of gravel, built hundreds of wooden platforms to raise tents, and filled and distributed sandbags. The engineers also completed a flood evaluation and evacuation plan, which was utilized when Hurricane Hanna hit the camp in mid-August.

“The GRM engineering team would like to thank Jordan Ermilio and the Villanova students for their continued support and guidance,” says Cook, adding, “I encourage everyone to check out the GRM website (www.global-response.org/engineering) and donate!”

You can learn more about the Matamoros project on Villanova’s Humanitarian Engineer podcast.

The recently finished school for children of asylum seekers.
Water storage for the showers and clothes washing stations
Cook (center) with the shower installation team, comprised of asylum seekers and GRM volunteers.


• The situation in Matamoros is one of the subjects of an undergraduate course in Engineering in the Humanistic Context.

• Villanova students are working on a rainwater-harvesting project for the new school, creating a manual for the water-quality testing equipment and analyzing the sustainability of GRM WASH projects.

• Christa Cook has moved to the US-Mexico border to put her engineering skills to work with GRM.