Delivering a safe and secure water supply for a village of 450 in Central America
My work with EWB to help a small village was replete with challenges, while also being one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
A few years ago I found myself stretched a little thin by some of the “extra-curriculars” (as I’d come to think of them) that I thought were mandatory to my being a good corporate citizen and, let’s face it, climbing the corporate ladder at record pace as my reward for it. I served on an advisory board and did some pretty involved stuff with my professional society, but I found myself unable to articulate the “why” of what I was doing, both for myself or the people affected by it. Just about that time, I heard about Engineers without Borders (EWB) USA, and it wasn’t long before I was diving in head first, helping to grow a recently founded local chapter, and eventually heading up the first project for the group.
Like most projects that come to EWB, this opportunity came from US Peace Corps volunteers already on the ground. We were asked to apply our expertise to help out in the small Honduran village of Segovia—home to some 450 people. Our mission was to deliver something all of us take very much for granted—a safe and secure water supply. The only source of water for the villagers was a hand-excavated open pit well. Not surprisingly, illnesses attributable to water-borne pathogens were common.
After visits to Segovia in 2009 to meet with local officials, assess the situation in person, and survey the site, the project was briefly delayed by political unrest in Honduras. Meanwhile, our team of five developed plans for a system to make use of a new well with a modern pump, an overhead storage tank, and a distribution system to carry water to each of the community’s approximately 75 dwellings.
Once travel restrictions were lifted, we returned to oversee construction. The villagers provided the vast majority of the sweat equity. Under guidance from the team and Peace Corps staff, the villagers dug over a kilometer of trenches into which the distribution piping was laid.
My primary challenge was managing lots of moving parts, including training the local residents in the operation, maintenance, and repair of their new water distribution system. Although our Peace Corps contact and one member of the team spoke Spanish, the rest of us made due with a 50-word vocabulary centered primarily on installation of PVC pipe, and hand gestures. The enthusiasm and dedication of the villagers was inspiring; they refused to let us pick up a shovel or a pick axe. Their hospitality as they fed us each day we worked was also welcome. We were given a beautiful home-cooked meal in a different home in the community each day.
While the engineering involved with this project was fairly straightforward, the complexity of the assignment was anything but, involving fundraising, approvals, cost estimates, and coordination with local officials, a missionary group, and the Peace Corps. And, just to keep it interesting, dealing with the political impact of a bloodless “coup” in the middle of the project.
I think what impressed me most about this experience with EWB was meeting people who have next to nothing by our standards, but realizing they are some of the happiest people in the world. And it is especially rewarding to see the impact our project has had to date—health data surveys have already documented a significant decrease in skin rashes and other water-borne illnesses.
My work with EWB has delivered what I sought: an immense sense of satisfaction in knowing I made a difference. So much so, in fact, that we’re currently planning our next project—improving the village’s drainage to alleviate standing water during the rainy season.
Authored by Andrew D. Eiland, Jr.