By Jacqueline Davis, Mechanical Engineer, Denver
I’ve always been interested in the work Engineers without Borders (EWB) does. According to ewb-usa.org, “Engineers Without Borders USA builds a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs.” Their highly skilled volunteers work with communities to find appropriate solutions for their infrastructure needs. EWB is also an organization that creates sustainable projects in communities in need around the world, ranging from building homes to various water projects.
Unfortunately, my college in Spokane, WA didn’t have a chapter, so after I moved to Denver, to join M.E. GROUP, whose purpose is Improving Life through a Better Built Environment, which is similar to EWB’s, I was excited to join the local chapter. And even though I’ve only been a member since last year, I’m excited to have already provided a lot of impact in my world, especially to the village of Malingua Pamba in Ecuador.
Early in 2017, I learned about and signed up for a trip EWB Denver was organizing with Rotary Club to help the villagers of Malingua Pamba. I knew I could provide immediate positive impact, especially because Central America is close to my heart. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I speak fluent Spanish, thanks to my mother who is from Costa Rica. I knew I would be useful in this project. The trip included two members from the Rotary Club (the organization that was funding both projects in Malingua Pamba), and myself, representing EWB.
My goal in going to Malingua Pamba was to learn as much as I could about sustainable systems and how they can have a dramatic and positive impact in the lives of community members. I also wanted to prove myself useful to EWB so I could be more involved in future projects.
Located in the Cotopaxi Province in Ecuador, Malingua Pamba sits at 10,000 ft in elevation and consists of only two homes, an elementary school, a high school and a church. It is surrounded by about 100 homes in nearby farming communities. The population of Malingua Pamba are of Indigenous descent and speak both Spanish and Kichwa. The older generations are not educated and many are illiterate, but all the members of the community are hardworking people who care about their community.
The steep and sandy terrain of this village have caused issues in implementing parts of the irrigation system, which was the first system I was to survey. Consisting of two water sources located high in the surrounding mountains that come from mountain springs, the water is trapped in two collection tanks, and from there distributed to several pressure break tanks. After the tanks, water then flows to sprinklers located at each farm, or it’s supposed to.
It Took Two Days to Survey the Entire System
The villagers put me to work immediately. The first stop was the water source, which was only accessible after a two-hour, uphill hike from the village. Coming from Colorado, I thought I was in pretty good hiking shape. Boy was I wrong! The villagers all had a good laugh while they watched me climb the mountain on all fours, holding on to shrubbery and small trees so I that wouldn’t go rolling down.
During the journey, more villagers joined us. Upon arrival to the source, I realized why.
Heavy rainfall in the region caused sediment to collect in the tanks, blocking water flow. Villagers frequently made this trek with their shovels to clean out the tanks (which they called a Minga) so water could be distributed to crops. As I helped clean out collection and pressure break tanks, I learned that villagers from the nearby Chimbusi region who also benefited from the water, were not happy about the tank placement.
The last time EWB visited the village, the team surveyed the area and recommended where the tanks should be located. Due to a construction error, the tank was built 70 ft too low on the hill, causing an uneven distribution of water to the villages and farms. I was able to take pressure readings of the sprinklers and immediately noticed significant psi discrepancies between locations, confirming their concerns. The villagers are now trying to raise enough money to build a tank in the correct location.
Even with the issues that arose, I was able to see the progress this community has made since implementing a watering system. A well-built system is taken for granted by many of us. I was happy to help those passionate about improving the lives of so many. Farms that had struggled in the past were now growing crops for the villagers to eat and sell in farmers’ markets.
The Other System I Surveyed was the Septic System
The region’s septic system is located in Malingua Pamba, due to the highest water usage in the two schools. A fairly simple sanitary system, a three-chambered septic tank collects waste water from the bathrooms of the schools and a nearby house. The first chamber collects all the waste; the solids sink to the bottom and the liquid stays on top. The liquids then flow into the second chamber where further separation occurs and then flows to the third. After the final chamber is filled, the waste goes into a 16m X 14m leach field.
I helped the villagers identify three main issues with the septic system and provided recommendations for improvement: 1) There was a 90 degree bend in the sanitary pipe leading up to the septic tank with no clean out allowing for the removal of blockages. 2) This same pipe had a “U” shaped bend, causing waste to lay stagnant in the middle of the pipe. 3) There weren’t any air holes added to the septic tank for ventilation. I was assured that these could be added in even though the tank was already in use.
As mentioned earlier, erosion is big problem EWB and the villagers have run into. Because of the sandy nature of the terrain, rain has left pipes exposed to the elements, which has also led to wear and tear from animals. Many of the pipes need to be replaced. However, I was able to help in efforts to decrease the rate of erosion by putting mesh on the terrain. This has shown positive results and is being implemented in areas most affected.
Overall, this was a very educational experience in many ways. I was able to take the people-focused skills I’ve learned at M.E GROUP and implement human-centered design in a place where water is treasured and never wasted. I was able to see first-hand how a sustainable and better built environment could improve so many lives.