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Healing Water

Healing Water

Just feet from where a pig slops contentedly in the water, children play and bathe. Later, they will take some of the water home with them to drink.

In the small Peruvian village of Viña Vieja, there is no municipal water source. Many of the 500 villagers get their water from a man-made canal system, sometimes trekking long and far to bring it home.

Getting water is not as difficult for the many agricultural companies that operate in the area, though. A few feet from the poorest homes in Viña Vieja—where houses are little more than adobe brick or tarp-enclosed lean-tos with roofs of banana leaves or straw—is a line of luscious tangerine trees fed 24 hours a day by soaker hoses.

Panoramic of Peru

Viña Vieja, Peru

“We saw pigs sitting in the water and kids drinking it. I know every time I’ve been down [there], I’ve heard somebody has passed away due to problems that people in the U.S. don’t usually die from.”

Steven Byers, civil engineering major

“Those trees are on soaker hoses, but the people living next to them can’t get water,” said Steven Byers, a UTSA senior civil engineering student. “It’s so close they can see it over their fence, yet it’s still not theirs. And the residents can’t do anything about it.”

But Byers is doing something about it.

Guided by John Joseph, a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Byers traveled with three other UTSA students to Peru over Christmas break to begin the arduous process of building a water system that, once complete, could sustain the entire village with clean, naturally filtered water. They’re tapping into an existing well that once provided water to an agricultural company and was recently turned over to the residents. However, it lacks a storage and distribution system.

“The capacity can serve the entire community with ease,” Byers said. “We have tested the water quality and it is good. And if there [is] a problem in the future, they’ll be able to chlorinate. We plan on teaching them how to test the water when we’re not there.”

The Problem

The Remedy

The 12-day excursion was the third trip that UTSA’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders made to the South American country. It’s a component of a larger effort to provide medical support and begin rebuilding the earthquake-stricken region, part of a five-year agreement with the tiny town in cooperation with Texas Partners of the Americas, a non-governmental organization.

Viña Vieja is an arid farming community about a three-hour drive south of Peru’s capital of Lima. In 2007, the region was devastated by consecutive earthquakes, leaving residents without housing and further complicating the existing problem of obtaining potable water.

Some residents survive by drinking and using un-filtered canal water, rife with human and animal waste and trash. Others tap an artesian well, an uncovered pit about 40 feet deep.

“They basically drop a pipe in there, but anything can fall in there: Dead animals. People. It’s not only a danger in and of itself, but it’s also not an ideal source of drinking water,” said Timothy Hayes, a senior civil engineering major.

Once the water is collected, residents boil it, but each year a number of residents fall victim to amoebic dysentery, and there’s a high infant-mortality rate as a result.

“We saw pigs sitting in the water and kids drinking it,” Byers said. “I know every time I’ve been down [there], I’ve heard somebody has passed away due to problems that people in the U.S. don’t usually die from. There, diarrhea is serious. Infant mortality is serious.”

And soon, a local agricultural company will begin adding fertilizer to the canal system used for crop irrigation.

“They’re going to be getting fertilized water to drink. That’s a problem,” Byers said.

So the race is on. And the students feel the pressure.

Digging In

UTSA Engineering students in Peru UTSA Engineering students in Peru

Steven Byers, a senior civil engineering major and member of Engineers Without Borders, takes a water sample from a residential well in Viña Vieja. The water may look fine to drink, but every time the area floods, fecal matter from area livestock spills into the well and contaminates the water.

Finding the solution to Viña Vieja’s water woes wasn’t easy and didn’t happen overnight. When the students joined UTSA’s Engineers Without Borders chapter in 2011, it was already the organization’s target, but they didn’t yet know what the community most needed.

When they asked, the answer was as simple as it was unexpected: Water.

“We didn’t even think about that because we always have water. You take it for granted,” said civil engineering senior Diego Gonzalez. “You don’t realize that people really need access to safe, reliable water.”

For a year, the students compiled numerous reports, ranging from a list of Peruvian insects to avoid to implementation and sustainability plans. Then there were the mathematical calculations that needed approval by the national arm of Engineers Without Borders before any work could begin. While Byers tackled how to get the water from the tanks to the people and

the amount of water pressure that would be required, Hayes and civil engineering major Adam Bazar worked on engineering the earthquake-proof foundations for the tanks.

“About 95 percent of what we do happens before we leave [the U.S.],” Hayes said. “All of these things that are actual practical design engineering calculations will eat up hours and hours of your life for months at a time.”

Design setbacks took months to correct, and the students worked year-round to find solutions. Once in Peru, the challenges intensified. Their supply list wasn’t received, so they spent much of the time working with a single shovel left behind from a previous trip. They depended on locals to provide them with the basics they needed for construction, scouring homesteads for a piece of rebar or wood. Hours were spent traveling to hardware stores, only to find that the simplest items, such as two-inch pipe, weren’t available.

“The trip was frustrating,” said Joseph, a licensed engineer. But instead of losing hope and giving up, the students did what they could to make progress on the water system. “It’s easy to become hopeless when the plans start to unravel, but [the students] didn’t. It was clear evidence that they weren’t just down there for fun. They all just wanted to get things done for the people.”

Viña Vieja residents could see that, too. By the end of the students’ stay, dozens of townspeople regularly worked at the site, collectively putting in what Joseph estimates to be hundreds of hours outside of their regular jobs digging a trench, sifting gravel and making and pouring concrete.

That’s why the students put so much of their spare time into this project, Hayes said. It matters.

“It takes a very specific kind of personality to stick with it,” he said. “There is no big payoff in the short term. There are a lot of late nights and tedious design work and calculations and frustration. But we’re the kind of people who care about others. We are changing lives.”

And their lives are being changed in the process, the students said.

Unfinished Business

Peruvian People UTSA Engineering students in Peru

As seniors, this group will be graduating soon. Like all students, they will take away book knowledge from UTSA. But they now have the added bonus of experience.

Viña Vieja taught them patience and trial and error, and that not every solution is 100-percent correct. They became technically savvy, able to create and present reports to professional engineers. And they learned that any project should always start with water, something they never used to think about.

“This is something we’re doing in school that we actually care about,” Bazar said. “Assignments get graded and that’s it. But this wasn’t just an assignment. We actually used whatever extra time we have to create something for this community, and that memory will last our whole lives.”

In an ironic twist, the students won’t see the water project completed. They laid the groundwork that will ultimately lead to a water-starved community beginning the arduous task of rebuilding after several years of simply surviving. But graduation day will come first, so they’re now doing what they can to pass on their knowledge to the Peruvian community and to the students who will walk in their footsteps over the coming years.

“We might not be able to see it finished, but we’ll graduate knowing we did our best,” Gonzalez said. “We made a commitment. It will be finished.”

Web Extra

The Road To Arotinco

By John Joseph, lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

On the road to Arotinco,

you'll drink chincha morada,

take your turn chopping at a Yuntza tree,

walk with potatoes wrapped around your head,

be studied by a steely man holding a machete,

get sucked dry by the sun and bugs,

and have a stone for a pillow.

The road to Arotinco

is indeed hard.

You'll sweat and struggle with little progress,

you'll make mistakes and feel like a fool.

But stay on this road.

Just take a good look around you:

It's the only road there is.

On the road to Arotinco,

you'll meet every glory from Chokispoma to Javier,

folks like you and me.

And on the last day,

when you reach the last house,

and Arotinco himself comforts you with a joke or two,

then profoundly thanks you on behalf of all you've met,

you'll understand

the road to Arotinco.

About the poem:

Pascual Arotinco lives in one of the more remote houses of Viña Vieja, Peru, and his house will likely be the last house reached with a water pipeline being installed by members of UTSA's Engineers Without Borders.

Everything in the first stanza and the first half of the second stanza actually happened to one or more of the EWB team during trips they made to the arid village in March 2012 and January 2013. Chincha morada is a beverage made from corn and often served with meals. And after one student, Diego Gonzalez, became ill with a fever, local residents placed slices of potato on his forehead to lower his temperature.

Chokispoma is an elderly Quechuan (Incan) woman who lives in a remote cluster of houses and who carries very little weight in the Viña Viejo community, while Javier is a community leader.


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