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Calvin student helps quench thirst in Jordan

Interested in making a difference and engaging in world issues? Check out Sarah Cok’s story. She helped reactivate a 2,000-year-old water system on the other side of the world.


  •   Author: Connor Bechler
  •   Published: October 2, 2019
  •   Author: Connor Bechler
  •   Published: October 2, 2019

In the Jordanian village of Umm el-Jimal, Calvin student Sarah Cok took part in a millennium-old engineering project: revitalizing the community’s access to clean water.

“The team members were all from different disciplines, which was really cool,” Sarah said. “I sat across the table from an anthropologist, a pottery specialist, an archaeologist, and a business professor.”

Her own interests were just as diverse. At Calvin, Sarah was able to study civil and environmental engineering, environmental studies, and art history.

“When I told engineering professor David Wunder about my interests, he was like, ‘Have you heard about this project? I think you’d be great for it,’” recalled Sarah.

Prof. Wunder, a member of the Clean Water Institute of Calvin University (CWICU), noted that Sarah’s interdisciplinary skill set was perfect for the project.

An ancient answer to a contemporary problem

The modern Umm el-Jimal community primarily relies on deep wells for water. But unfortunately, the wells have begun to dry up, forcing villagers to drill deeper.

Concerned about the community’s decreasing access to clean water, Calvin emeritus professor of archaeology Bert de Vries contacted the CWICU. De Vries, who has worked in Jordan for over four decades, suggested reactivating the village’s ancient water system.

The village of Umm el-Jimal has seen five or six waves of civilization. Pre-Roman Arab residents built an extensive system of channels and reservoirs that expanded as the town grew. By the 20th century, much of the water system had filled with sediment. In order for the system to be reactivated and meet the community’s additional water needs, tons of rubble would have to be removed and new channels would have to be built while also preserving the archaeological integrity of the site.

With Prof. Wunder’s encouragement, Sarah applied to travel to Jordan and work with the CWICU on the project.

A vision in harmony with history

Sarah alternated between duties. She drew up designs and wrote reports. And she worked at the site of the ancient water system. There she documented existing channel conditions, carried out a site elevation survey, and mapped locations for new channels.

“It’s important that the new designs are distinct from the old ones—you want to be clear you’re not trying to fake history,” explained Sarah. “But the new designs still need to be in harmony with the history.

“A lot of my role was to be an engineer, one with respect towards preservation and site integrity,” she added. “I drew up a bunch of designs, and to look new and use local materials, they pulled different things from all of them.”

Working towards a sustainable future

The community of Umm el-Jimal is highly supportive of the project. Both the mayor and the municipal engineers offered the team their assistance.

Sarah noted that community members have started two really important organizations. One is an educational initiative focused on training teachers how to teach about sustainable water use. And the other is a company that will eventually oversee the Umm el-Jimal project.

“A big part of this is that it needs to be sustainable without third party people coming in,” Sarah continued. “As cool as it is that we all get to work on this, it should be the community’s.”

Although she’s enjoyed being back in the U.S., Sarah is still intrigued by Jordan.

“The people in Jordan are amazing; they’re super hospitable. I was invited to come back in the future, and I loved being there, so we’ll see,” she concluded, smiling.

  •   Author: Connor Bechler
  •   Published: October 2, 2019

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