Foster Center for Student Innovation

Engineers Without Borders Traveling to Developing Country in Attempt to Improve Water Security in Region

University of Maine on July 30, 2014 by Elyse Kahl

Ecuador

Members of the University of Maine student group Engineers Without Borders will travel to Ecuador for two weeks in August on an assessment trip they hope will open the door to a long-term project to improve water security in the region.

From Aug. 16–28, six UMaine students and two mentors will stay in La “Y” de La Laguna in the coastal rain forest of Ecuador. La “Y,” which means the “Y” or a fork in the road, is a 300-person community that is struggling with an insufficient supply of drinking water.

 

A long dry season and inadequate storage is responsible for the low water supply. Residents are now dependent on buying untreated river water from an improvised tanker truck, according to EWB-UMaine members. The group aims to improve water security by helping the community find an adequate source, appropriate treatment, and reliable distribution.

“This trip will help us assess the needs of the community and build relationships that are vital to project success,” says EWB-UMaine member Logan Good. “Thinking ahead, this trip is just the beginning of a great companionship with the people of La ‘Y’ and a fantastic chance to experience global engineering.”

EWB-UMaine is a student chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA. It was founded in 2007 and is made up of students and professional mentors who introduce communities in developing countries to sustainable engineering projects that aim to improve residents’ quality of life. Students from any major can join the group.

Good, a mechanical engineering student from Presque Isle, Maine, is the team’s project leader, co-design leader and assistant health and safety officer. During the trip, he will be responsible for ensuring all scheduled tasks are accomplished and for providing a safe, educational and exciting experience for team members.

This is the second EWB-UMaine trip for Good, who traveled with the group to Honduras in March 2013.

“Engineers Without Borders provides many opportunities to enrich students’ global perspectives and create responsible leaders,” Good says.

During the summer assessment trip, EWB-UMaine members will meet with the community, collect water quality and health data, and discuss possible storage solutions.

Edwin Nagy, a civil and environmental engineering lecturer at UMaine, is the group’s interim adviser and will attend the trip as an engineering mentor. His focus will be on the students’ relation-building efforts as they try to understand the community’s needs and organizational structure. Robert Sypitkowski, an environmental engineer and UMaine alumnus, will provide the main technical guidance on the trip, Nagy says.

Sypitkowski traveled to La “Y” in December to meet community members. While there, he learned that five years ago, a water pump system was constructed, but the system immediately failed and there is no funding to fix it. After conducting water quality tests, he determined a new source and a storage system are needed, and the community agreed, according to Sypitkowski.

Involving the community is an important aspect of the project, according to Nagy. Community members also will be given cameras and encouraged to take photos to spark discussions with EWB-UMaine about future potential projects.

“Having the community involved from the beginning means that the people who benefit from the project are involved in keeping it alive, and it means that needs identified are needs that the people themselves believe they have,” Nagy says, adding the group’s short-term goal is to get to know the community well enough to assess and understand their needs while making friends.

“I am very interested to know their story, make new stories with them, and of course, play some futbol,” Good says of the local residents.

After the assessment trip, the students will work with the mentors to design a suitable water system. Over the next several years, the group will take a series of implementation and monitoring trips to assist La “Y” with at least water storage, if not water quality. Nagy expects the project will take three to five years to complete.

In between trips, the group will work on perfecting their design; raising funds; and analyzing data on water quality, health, satisfaction and political status collected from the community. The data will help the group determine what effect their work is having on the perceived quality of life in the region.

Educational programs will be provided to community members throughout the project term to keep residents informed and encourage sustainability. Programs will include discussion about coliforms and related health risks, as well as information about operation and maintenance of the water system the group implements.

“If all goes well, this will overlap with other projects within this community or neighboring communities and we can have a long-term relationship with the people in and around La ‘Y,’ slowly helping them get to a point where they have the infrastructure for long-term, self-directed growth,” Nagy says.

In 2013, EWB-UMaine completed a five-year effort to implement a community septic system for 28 homes in Dulce Vivir, Honduras. In 2012, the project earned a $25,000 grant from Newman’s Own Foundation and the EWB-USA “Premiere Project Award” — the only award of its kind given to a student chapter that year. The project taught students how to work with a community to develop and implement a sustainable project, such as the one they are now pursuing in Ecuador.

“I hope the students will gain an appreciation for the many alternative ways of living in the world, a more practical approach to engineering and an increased sense of the options available to them as engineers,” Nagy says.

In February, the group was awarded a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant for work to be completed in Ecuador during the summer. Projects for Peace grants are funded by the Davis Foundation and are awarded to efforts that address conflict resolution and reconciliation, foster understanding, provide opportunity and build community, according to the foundation.

UMaine chemistry student Bryer Sousa also won a Projects for Peace grant in 2013 to install biosand water filters in 50 households in an impoverished rural region of Honduras.