Well Intentioned Plans
Living within the Sechura desert, one of the most arid places in the world, citizens of Viña Vieja, Peru, struggle for what little water they have. But as farming activity increases, bacterial pollutants now choke the only water supplies available. Until UTSA’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders can finish construction of a well, the citizens are left with few options.
Senior civil engineering student Jessica George learns many lessons from her UTSA professors, but she learned one lesson that none of them could teach her from a nine-year-old girl during the height of the Peruvian summer.
“Leslie probably weighed less than 50 pounds,” George recalls of the child who worked tirelessly alongside UTSA engineering students and engineering lecturer John Joseph during the first two weeks of January. Leslie was only one of the dozens of local residents who helped clear rocks and lay pipes along a four-kilometer route to provide clean water to the village of Viña Vieja. Located on the edge of the Sechura desert, south of the Piura Region of Peru, Viña Vieja is one of the most hostile environments on the planet.
“When we thought we were tired, Leslie kept going with an infectious smile on her face,” remembers George. “Forget about eye-opening. It was eye-popping. It was like being beamed into a different world.”
The students, members of UTSA’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UTSA) chapter, get more than just the sense of satisfaction that comes with doing what’s right. They see the theoretical lessons they learn in class making the difference between life and death.
According to UNICEF and the World Health Organization, Worldwide, 884 million people lack access to clean water. That’s almost three times the population of the United States, or one of every eight people on the planet. Every 20 seconds, a child dies from a water-related illness. Each year, 3.5 million people, the equivalent of the entire population of Los Angeles, die from a water-related disease.
After two assessment trips to Peru, the EWB-UTSA team considered various systems of water delivery to the remote village. The three most likely sources of water were rainwater, surface water, and ground/well water.
The team ultimately chose a ground water-sourced system provided by a contracted well. This method of water delivery was chosen for its convenience, water quality, ease of access and moderate cost. For the chosen solution, maintenance and operation of the water system will be localized, and based on the observed skills of the community members, long-term sustainability is likely.
“In terms of the timeline, we are probably about halfway through. In terms of construction we are just getting started, less than 5% complete,” Joseph said.
The EWB-UTSA chapter was established in 2007 and has student members from multiple disciplines including mechanical and civil engineering, finance and geology.
“My time with EWB has allowed me to see firsthand the needs of the developing world and as engineers it is our responsibility to serve the global community,” says Steven Byers, civil engineering senior.
The well site the team prepared and the pipe it laid to a roadside during its most recent visit will ultimately replace the unreliable—and often tainted—water sources the 500 or so villagers have had to rely on since a series of earthquakes devastated the region in 2007. When it’s flowing, villagers can retrieve water from the Matagente River, even though it has been determined to be too high in coliforms for human consumption. When the river is dry, some Viña Vieja residents walk a half-mile, as many as five times a day, to collect water from the wells of an agricultural company that soon will be laced with fertilizer, again considered toxic. Other residents rely on water from a spring that collects into a communal pool. The same communal pool is used for animals to drink from, trash to fall into, children to play in, and waste water to fill.
UTSA-EWB faculty advisor and civil and environmental engineering assistant professor Dr. Heather Shipley, an expert in water quality monitoring; water purification including the use of novel technologies such as nanomaterials; fate and transport of nanoparticles; water sustainability; and technology comparisons and improvements for water and wastewater treatment, says students learn a variety of lessons through their involvement in EWB-UTSA.
“They learn both technical and professional skills,” she explained. “The engineering students use what they are learning in classes to design the water system. This includes delivery of water, infrastructure, and project management.”
This is the third trip EWB-UTSA has made to Peru as part of a five-year agreement with the town of Viña Vieja in cooperation with local non-governmental organization Texas Partners of the Americas. While TPA has rebuilt a school, a library and a dining hall; clean, reliable water is a top priority if the village is to survive.
The solution designed by EWB-UTSA students consists of one submersible and two booster pumps and five 10,000-liter water tanks. Three tanks will be near the source water well and the other two tanks will be uphill from Vina Vieja. The project also includes more than six kilometers of PVC pipe at various diameters, and individual taps available at almost every home.
“I noticed the community members enjoyed a lot in life even though they didn’t have the basics to sustain it,” explained EWB-UTSA president and mechanical engineering senior Dustin Vasquez of his experience.
EWB-UTSA is planning another trip in August to make the water system operational. Equally important to the success of their mission is the education of the community.
Team members are teaching the citizens about proper hygiene, water safety and how to effectively care for the water system once it is complete. They have established a water committee made up of community volunteers and leaders to ensure proper care of the equipment and to assess small fees to cover the cost of sustainability.
“I’m impressed that these students took time from their holiday break to endure harsh living conditions, so such a basic need of the people of Vina Vieja might be met, and how diligently and steadily they worked as unexpected obstacles arose.” Joseph said. “Students who join EWB already know that there’s more to life than making money. I think that those investing their time in this project are developing a habit of caring about others, and come to know deeply that there’s real people in this world beyond our own borders.”
Paying for these trips is another opportunity for UTSA students to learn. “They need to raise money for their travel and to carry out the project. As a result, they learn professional skills like fundraising and budgeting,” Shipley said.
EWB-UTSA is currently engaged in fundraising projects to finance its next trip. They hope to raise between $15,000 and $25,000 to cover the costs associated with flying students to Peru to build a life-saving water supply. Current donors to the group include Clearly Zimmermann Engineers, GKW-Inc., Gabriele and Mark Niederauer, UTSA Family Association and Parent Council, UTSA College of Engineering, UTSA College of Engineering Office of the Dean, the UTSA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Alamo Toyota, Wayne S. Alexander, BruteSquad, LLC, Coursen-Koehler, LLC, Tony Diamond, Stephen T. Graham, John F. Joseph, and Red McCombs Automotive Center.