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For almost a year now, the Engineers Without Borders USA USC Chapter’s international project team has been working on improving access to clean and reliable water for nearly 60 homes in a community in Yannani, Bolivia. 

Throughout this project, the Bolivia team has been working closely with the organization Engineers in Action (EIA), a non-profit organization that is committed to “improving the health and wellbeing of vulnerable communities in Latin America.” EIA has been acting as a liaison between our organization and the Yannani community, working with community leaders to ensure that the needs of the community are constantly being taken into consideration. 

A photo from one of our Engineers in Action’s water filtration and sanitation projects

Currently, many families in the Yannani community rely on gathering water from sources such as springs and rivers, which are highly prone to contamination and thus pose many health challenges to the community. Having no choice but to drink this contaminated water, children in the community often suffer from ailments such as diarrhea. And if that isn’t already enough, the community faces an added complication: natural water sources dry up each winter, thereby causing a severe reduction in water supply. In addition, community members need to walk for about an hour to get to and from the closest river, which adds yet another obstacle to the community’s effort to obtain clean water.

Although some community members have built an improvised piping system to siphon water from small springs, these springs still dry up during winter, thereby forcing the community to ration water. In response to this crisis, the Bolivia team is working with EIA and the Yannani community to design a water distribution and filtration system that will hopefully be implemented in the community towards the end of the year.

One of the International Project Managers, Andres Aguilar, Leading a Team Meeting

Since summer 2020, our international project team has created a project timeline and made significant progress towards research and planning. The project team is divided into committees, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the project: technical research, practical evaluation of different filtration and distribution system options, and logistics for travel and funding. Although many team members (including the project managers!) did not have experience with water supply systems prior to undertaking this project, they have all been putting a lot of work into research in order to understand the technical aspects of the project. Furthermore, the team’s mentor Paul, an environmental engineer with prior experience working on other water supply projects, has been a valuable resource for project leads and members alike. 

However, as you would imagine, working on an international project during a pandemic has posed many challenges for the Bolivia team. Although international projects usually involve sending team members to the community to physically assess the situation and site prior to the actual implementation of the solution, the safety risks to both the Bolivia team and Yannani community prevented this from happening this year. Despite this, the Bolivia team is working with EIA to organize a remote assessment trip via Zoom so that progress on the project can continue as planned. Although this will depend on the results of this assessment trip, the team hopes to implement the solution over winter break this year.

I asked Ashwini Balaganesh, one of the international project managers, about her views on the status of the Bolivia project. She is optimistic about the progress of the project and voiced a feeling shared by the team as a whole: “water is so necessary and the sooner we can get it to those in the community that don’t have it, the better.” As soon as the situation permits, Ashwini and the rest of her team hope to implement their solution in order to provide the Yannani community with a convenient, reliable, and sustainable source of clean water! 

Timothy Harrington