FAIRFAX, Virginia — Engineers Without Borders-USA is a volunteer-based organization founded in 2002 committed to enabling underserved communities to meet their basic needs through innovative and sustainable engineering solutions. EWB-USA works in 38 countries, aiming to improve the quality of water supply, infrastructure and sanitation systems in underserved communities. The organization’s efforts also extend to agriculture, civil works, energy, information systems and more. In its two decades of activity, the organization has had “a lifetime impact” on close to 1.7 million people globally. As of November 11, 2022, the organization is running 491 active projects supported by 4,144 volunteers. The EWB-USA projects that these efforts will benefit more than 1.1 million people. In particular, EWB-USA is running projects to improve sanitation and water access in Bolivia.
Poverty, Sanitation and Water Access in Bolivia
Among EWB-USA’s projects, 23 projects are active in Bolivia specifically. Bolivia is a country located in west-central South America with a history of economic struggles and high poverty rates. In 2020, 39% of Bolivia’s population lived below the poverty line, the World Bank reports.
This statistic correlates with several ongoing issues within the country, including a lack of access to proper sanitation and clean water. According to Water for People, about 64% of the rural population lacks access to “basic sanitation services” and about 22% of the rural population does not have sufficient access to potable water as of 2016. For this reason, EWB-USA’s Bolivia-based projects are primarily dedicated to improving sanitation and water services in communities across the country.
The Borgen Project spoke with EWB-USA head engineer, Gerard Dalziel, who said, “These projects are the key to helping underserved communities take the first (or next) step up the economic ladder.” He continued by saying, “Water, toilets [and]irrigation systems all contribute in some way to the health and well-being of community members.”
Dalziel explains, “By providing clean water, everyone is healthier. Toilets keep fecal material out of the living environment. Healthy children can go to school and not have to stay home sick. Mothers have more time (because they are not taking care of their sick children) to work and provide additional income for the family. Less money is spent on medicine and health care.” Dalziel currently works as a program engineer, overseeing many of EWB-USA’s Bolivia-based projects.
A particularly notable EWB-USA project to alleviate sanitation and water-related stress in Bolivia is the Atahuallani, Bolivia – Clean Water Supply Project.
Atahuallani, Bolivia – Clean Water Supply Project
Atahuallani is an isolated village in Bolivia situated near Mount Illimani. Atahuallani’s current main water supply is severely contaminated by mine runoff and animal waste, making clean water a rarity in the community. EWB-USA began its work in the village of Atahuallani in 2019. EWB-USA’s aimed to provide the members of the town with clean water from an easy-to-reach source. EWB-USA also aims to develop a latrine system suitable for the location to prevent future water contamination and sustain the organization’s work in the area.
EWB-USA’s process to accomplish this clean water goal consisted of several steps. Firstly, after deciding to aid the Atahuallani village, members of EWB-USA conducted an initial assessment, which required them to travel to the region and survey areas of the land that could serve as potential water sources. They could not repurpose pre-existing canals to supply water as those are essential to irrigation systems that provide the town’s agricultural reap. Therefore, the team had to be exceptionally creative and decided to utilize a natural elevated canal to provide the water instead.
Once the team designated the “glacial runoff stream” as the water source, the implementation began. The ambitious project required the aid of several volunteers and community members. But, throughout 2021, workers remained motivated to introduce a supply pipeline, collection dam, distribution systems and storage tank systems to the town. As a result, the first phase of the project reached completion in 2022.
The project is ongoing, now in phase two. Volunteers are currently researching alternative latrine models to install in the community, further improving the well-being of Atahuallani residents. Being proactive about the proper disposal of fecal matter in the future will ensure that the town never undergoes a similar water and sanitation crisis. EWB-USA’s aid in Atahuallani will provide direct relief to 300 people.
Isolation in Bolivia
Overall, a common theme seen throughout the EWB-USA Bolivia projects is “isolation.” Since many underserved villages are geographically located in remote areas, people cannot easily access resources to meet several basic needs.
Areas similar to Atahuallani, where EWB-USA is doing sanitation and water supply-related work, are Carijana, Parque Colani, Puerto Pando and Jancko Marca, among others. These projects throughout Bolivia will provide direct relief to more than 5,600 people.
Because of EWB-USA’s work, thousands of people will no longer need to worry about how to secure their water and sanitation needs. They will now be able to direct their energy to other aspects of life that will aid them in “taking the first step up the ladder to prosperity,” Dalziel commented.
What Makes Engineers Without Borders-USA Unique
EWB-USA is unique because it aims to empower communities to become self-sufficient and not just alleviate issues for a short period. Furthermore, the program is simultaneously educational, teaching young engineers and volunteers technical skills they can apply in the future. The organization provides volunteers with “a larger world view, knowledge of another culture and greater understanding and empathy for our human family,” according to Dalziel. He says, “being part of this dual mission is extraordinarily rewarding.” Dalziel finished, “Because of the foundational nature of our projects, not to mention the stories we hear and the changes we see, we can say that we have improved the economic health of all these people.”
The work of EWB-USA and its hardworking volunteers aims to ensure improved sanitation and water access in Bolivia, with the overall aim of reducing poverty. The results of these efforts are already apparent as the World Bank cites that poverty in Bolivia declined in 2021, bringing hope to citizens for a brighter future.
– Aarika Sharma