By Ms Nancy J Sticht (USACE)October 11, 2011
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Day after day, families in the small mountaintop village of Visibakvitz, Guatemala, about 6,000 feet above sea level, would travel on foot, downhill for about a mile to wash their clothes and dishes and retrieve drinking and cooking water from a shared, spring-fed water tank and washing station. Then, carrying children, dishes, heavy wet clothes and pails of water, they made their way back up the steep mountainside to their homes and begin the cycle again.
That was the situation until a project by Engineers Without Borders - USA (EWB) Jacksonville, Fla. Professional Chapter successfully brought clean water directly to 25 households, a school
and a church. The fledgling chapter, which had chosen to focus on water and sanitation, conducted an assessment trip to the Nebaj region of Guatemala in 2009 to collaborate with a non-governmental organization, Agua Para La Salud (APS). Together they selected projects in three communities -- Visibakvitz, Xepium and Xevitz -- all of which were priorities and well-suited to the chapter's capabilities and potential funds. The projects represent a five-year commitment to the selected communities, to design and implement low-cost, small-scale, replicable and sustainable engineering solutions.
The Visibakvitz project was completed this year, with the help of two engineers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District.
Amanda Lavigne grew up in Niceville, Fla. and attended the University of Florida, where she earned a bachelor's degree in civil and structural engineering and a master's degree in water resources engineering before joining the Corps in June 2010. She serves as secretary for the local EWB chapter.
"I started out as a physics major, but soon discovered that I wasn't cut out for the lab," said Lavigne. "I enjoyed things like the bridge projects that we did in school, and it made me want to learn something with very practical applications."
Crystal Markley, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, earned her bachelor's degree in agricultural and biological engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She started her career with the Corps in July 2010, after serving less than a year as a Corps contractor. She is a past president of both the local and state professional chapters of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a partner organization to EWB, where she first met Lavigne, who at the time was active with
the ASCE student chapter.
Markley's father was an electrical engineer who worked for one company for his entire career. "What got my dad enthused about engineering is not the same as what gets me enthused about engineering," she explained. "He liked to tinker and figure out how things worked. I was drawn to engineering as a chance to use problem-solving skills to manage and protect natural resources. I enjoy seeing the outcomes of projects, such as this water project,
making a difference for people. My dad was always generous using his skills to help others, and I learned to volunteer through his example."
Lavigne had never traveled out of the country and was motivated to join the EWB team in traveling to Guatemala to see "the work we do" in a different context and without all the comforts of home. Markley had been a member of the project design team for the Visibakvitz project, and she was anxious to share in the last step of the project, meet the community and see all the components come together.
The design team used survey data, photographs and GPS information to produce a design in less than one year: a system that would pump clean water 100 meters up the mountain to a 10,000-liter storage tank, where a gravity distribution system would allocate it to each home as well as the school and church.
Markley and Lavigne were members of two of three separate teams that each worked on a phase of the project construction. Upon arriving in Guatemala, the teams traveled by car for six to seven hours, made slower and more difficult by the mountainous roads,
rough terrain and speed bumps placed about every 100 feet.
"We learned that a branch placed in the road, still bearing its leaves, meant that we should be cautious as there was a stopped car ahead," explained Markley.
"We were also stopped by a street carnival and parade, complete with dancers in very colorful costumes," added Lavigne. "We learned later that sometimes these carnivals can go on for hours or even days, with no way to get around them in either direction. It was fascinating to watch!"
Each team spent from one week to ten days on site and worked alongside community members, who shared in responsibility for project construction. Even the children became involved. The teams' arrival signaled the end of school, as interacting with the teams was deemed far more fun and interesting.
The teams had arrived with extra luggage, filled with surprises - soccer balls, bubbles, clothes, toothbrushes and more than 100 lbs. of toothpaste.
"I will always remember the kids," said Lavigne. "They were so excited to have us there, and they loved playing soccer with us and having their pictures taken and then seeing themselves on the camera screen."
Language posed only a slight barrier, one that was overcome with the help of Lynn Roberts of APS, an American who has lived in Guatemala for 20 years, collaborating on water projects with several organizations including EWB, the Peace Corps, and Wisconsin Water. The local language is Ixil, an ancient Mayan language. Roberts's colleague of 15 years, Diego, speaks both Ixil and Spanish and Roberts is fluent in both Spanish and English, facilitating communications with the EWB teams.
"Both Lynn and Diego have so much passion -- it was inspiring to work with them," said Markley.
Projects are designed with the same technical standards as if they were built in the United States; one important criterion is that the project must be sustainable for the community it serves. All materials used in building the project must be available in-country and a primary
component of the project is instructing the community in its operation and maintenance.
The community established a Water Board, and the EWB team taught them about metering and billing mechanisms and how to use spreadsheets. A team member donated a used laptop, equipped with basic programs such as Excel, to use in managing monthly usage and expenses. The board established a constitution and set of rules for how they would deal with issues such as payment delinquency or adding new families.
Meters were distributed and assigned to each family the night before they were scheduled to be installed. They represented the reward for all the sweat equity the members of the village put into the project construction, making villagers understandably protective of them.
"I remember one woman in particular, cradling her water meter like it was a treasure," said Lavigne. "They all kept their meters inside overnight, and some were even reluctant to bring them outside to be connected."
Markley's group represented EWB during a special ceremony with the community. She observed that the villagers bathed, washed their hair and dressed up for the ceremony.
"The final ceremony was a real celebration with the community," said Markley. "The ability to turn on a faucet and have running water indoors was a new concept for the villagers. Some of them had rainwater collection barrels, but nothing like this," she added. "It was very humbling, and made me appreciate all that we have. We take so much for granted."