Harvest of Rain

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A Salvadoran boy gets his first taste of clean running water after students in OSU's chapter of Engineers Without Borders designed and installed a gravity-fed system in cooperation with an isolated Central American community. (Photo: Michelle Adlong)

December 17, 2008

Engineering water systems for Salvadoran coffee farmers reaps unexpected rewards

By Lee Sherman

Last year's excursions to the remote hill country of southwestern El Salvador promised to be excellent adventures for Scott Crook and Aparna Shrivastava. The OSU students' mission - to build clean-water systems with coffee farmers living high in a hidden rainforest - would test their engineering skills and slake their thirst for new experiences. They never expected the project to change their lives.

"It completely transformed my belief in me," says Shrivastava, a junior in mechanical engineering from Tigard, Oregon. "It changed my perspective about what I can do for the world."

Crook echoes her sentiment. "It made me realize the incredible things you can do in the world," says the civil-engineering sophomore from Salem.

Biodiesel to Solar

The El Salvador Water Project is one of several initiatives of the OSU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) - a nonprofit humanitarian organization that partners with communities across the globe to solve quality-of-life problems. Coconut-based biodiesel in Fiji, drip irrigation in Niger, solar-powered schools in Mali, pedal power in India, hydro-electric power in Peru - these are a few of the projects under way worldwide, funded by grants and donations.

For the 150 Salvadoran families living among the steep ridges and deep ravines between Las Mercedes and El Naranjito, water is difficult to reach and often contaminated with pathogens. Four or five times a day, women lug five-gallon jugs up and down precarious slopes between their small, brick or stucco homes and the natural springs that bubble out of the mountainside. When those springs dry up during the summer months, families have to use contaminated surface water, which often causes illness. The children suffer most.

In 2006, OSU students took up the challenge. Portland engineer Aaron Poresky - a recent OSU grad who now heads Portland's professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders - led the charge by making a reconnaissance trip to get the lay of the land. Since then, 30 students have traveled to Central America in teams of four to 10 to meet with local residents, confer with water councils, obtain permits, survey the landscape, arrange transportation, purchase materials and, working side-by-side with the rainforest communities, construct catchments for "harvesting" rainwater and spring-water collection systems.

"The municipality where the students are working is one of the poorest in all of El Salvador," says Poresky, an environmental engineer with Geosyntec Consultants. "The Ministry of Health has raised grave concerns about the prevalence of undernourished children there.  We know that malnutrition very often is associated with contaminated drinking water and associated illnesses."

Engineers group shot
OSU students Malia Kupillas, Janice Keeley, Kelly Kibler, Michelle Adlong, Sonia Galan, and Scott Crook rejoice in their El Salvador accomplishment. (Photo: Don Miguel Escobar)

Capturing Cloudbursts

On the eastern slope of La Cumbre (literally, "the summit"), Salvadoran farmers plant, tend and harvest organic coffee in the shade of tropical vegetation. Rains drench the forest much of the year. Yet without plumbing or public infrastructure, the farmers have no way to capture and store these abundant rains or to bring spring water to their widely scattered homes - they didn't, that is, until EWB-OSU arrived.

Since Poresky's initial trip, the OSU teams have brought ceramic and colloidal-silver filtration systems to the community through Potters for Peace. They have built a rainwater "catchment" system for El Naranjito School. And last summer, they constructed a centralized gravity-fed spring-water system in the heart of the forest.

Planning for the gravity-fed system took place some 3,000 miles north of La Cumbre during the winter of 2007 - 2008. Crook and Shrivastava gathered weekly with their EWB peers in a drafty Corvallis classroom while outside, pewter skies spat rain and snow. Together, they studied topographic maps, investigated the suitability of rain catchment versus gravity-fed water systems and discussed the legal requirements of local water boards. Several native Salvadorans talked to the students about cultural norms and traditions. Camaraderie, commitment and lots of coffee sustained them through the sometimes-tedious meetings.

Carl Moen helped steer the thought process. A sophomore from Sandy, Oregon, Moen joined EWB-OSU at his freshman orientation when he heard that the organization was seeking pumping expertise. "It was right up my alley," says the mechanical engineering major, who was a pumping technician with the U.S. Navy for eight years. "The hands-on problem-solving for an extremely challenging environment is a great way to put your skills to work. You take a design and make it work in the situation."

Doubts Cast Aside

At age 30, Moen is a force of quiet maturity, a self-described "jack-of-all-trades" who shuns the limelight for a supporting role behind the scenes. "I'm interested in mentoring and training future leaders," he says.

Between meetings, Shrivastava conferred with the Peace Corps volunteer who was their liaison and translator in the Salvadoran community. She submitted (and resubmitted) design plans to the organization's technical advisory committee (volunteer professional engineers who review student designs to ensure technical soundness, environmental sensitivity, social relevance and economic sustainability). She worried herself sick about every detail for which, as chapter president, she was responsible. Sometimes she was seized with doubt: Was she really up to the task? "I was very anxious," she recalls. "It was such a big responsibility to have on your shoulders."

But with guidance from OSU faculty mentors Harold Yeh, Todd Scholz and Chris Higgins, the students were able to work out the details and logistics for a gravity-fed system of pipes that would snake through the understory to a storage tank encased in concrete and rebar, where families could collect water and wash clothes.

Lost in Translation

The painstaking plans forged in a faraway place soon bumped into realities on the ground. Although the coffee farmers of El Salvador share a hemisphere with the campus in Corvallis, the two communities exist in separate worlds. The daily-life disparities between North and Central America cannot be fully appreciated from afar. Nor can all pitfalls be anticipated. "I went in with a day-in-the-park mentality - you know, just slap on a little mortar," Crook confesses. "Everything makes sense on paper. But in El Salvador, things don't usually go the way you think they should go. Building materials aren't dropped off at the door by Home Depot. You have to make do."

On one occasion, "making do" meant strapping a 10,000-liter plastic water tank to a semi-truck already bulging with a mountain of bricks. From there it was 30 miles of bad roads and white knuckles. At one point, the truck encountered a power line hanging low across the road. Crook's reaction ("Oh, shoot!") lasted only a second. The back-up driver sprung out of the cab brandishing a long pole, which he used to lift the wire while the truck passed underneath. Where the paved road turned to dirt, a second vehicle was waiting to transport the tank to the worksite. A Toyota 4x4, its better days were decades behind it. "The truck looked like something out of a Mel Gibson movie - you know, Mad Max or Road Warrior," Crook jokes.

In this instance, "making do" meant figuring out how to secure the giant tank onto the tiny pickup and then coax it up slopes that tilted nearly 45 degrees in places. "We used lots and lots of rope, and one guy had to get out and push from behind," Shrivastava says.

The MacGyver Approach

Another setback - a broken axle - delayed delivery of the gravel needed for the water-tank foundation by three days. When the load finally arrived, the student engineers were dismayed to see "head-sized boulders" passing as gravel. "We ended up using a lot of sand in the foundation," Crook reports. "It's very design-as-you-go. You have to MacGyver everything on the spot."

Other hardships included digging trenches in thick, wilting humidity (or, for teams working in the rainy season, downpours of biblical proportions), and back-breaking, high-elevation hikes with heavy packs. Says Shrivastava, "It feels like you're climbing stairs forever."

"Yeah, but without the stairs!" chimes in Crook.

Among the hazards, insects were not insignificant. One day while installing a section of pipe, the students ran into a swarm of hornets. "These were jungle hornets - really evil bugs," says Crook. "They would zoom at you like kamikaze fighters." At night, bug-hunting bats swooped in and out of the lightless sleeping quarters. One evening, something huge scurried across the floor and disappeared under a hat. Jerking up the headgear, Crook found an armored beetle the size of a computer mouse. Then there were the "freaky spiders," which he describes as "crazy fast and as big as dinner plates." Shrivastava came face-to-face with one of these monsters her very first night. As she flopped wearily onto her sleeping bag, her headlamp beamed upward, casting light across the metal-tiled ceiling. There clung a "huge and hairy spider" with mega-mandibles. At that instant, the oversized arthropod performed a Spiderman-like arabesque across the ceiling. The scream that escaped from Shrivastava's mouth scared her as much as her roommates.

The Human Element

Seat-of-the-pants feats of engineering and problem-solving were invaluable learning experiences for Crook and Shrivastava. But their inner transformation was sparked by another, rather unexpected, source: the Salvadoran people themselves. The strength and tenacity, warmth and generosity, gratitude and humility of the families they worked alongside moved the students deeply.

"Living with the locals was just as stretching, just as rewarding, as the engineering," Crook told a group of professors during a recent faculty-club lunch presentation.

Although the OSU students instigated and coordinated the project, its implementation was pure collaboration. Local partners included a mason for concrete work and a lawyer for water-rights expertise. Then there was Caesar, the contract driver who kept the ancient Toyota running against all odds. And Don Pasqual, who offered plates of fried plantains and fresh tortillas and mugs of aromatic coffee, saying: "We bring you food because it's all we have to give. We can never repay you properly, but God will."

Crook marveled at the ingenuity, endurance and raw power of the men who helped them lay pipe through the "Jurassic Park-like" terrain. "One guy with a machete cut down a thick tree in about five minutes and then ripped out the stump with a rope," he says. "They outworked us consistently."

Cultural awareness flowed both ways. One day, after watching the college men and women work side-by-side for a fortnight - digging, lifting, pounding, sweating - the 20-year-old daughter of Don Pasqual quietly took the handles of a wheelbarrow and joined the crew. In a culture where physical labor is the domain of males, this act was, in Shrivastava's words, "revolutionary."

"We got excited," she says. "It was a cool moment."

A Child's Eyes

But it was the children who touched Crook and Shrivastava to the core. One day, a piñata revealed a surprising spirit of sharing. After the kids had whacked the colorful papier-mache dinosaur and gleefully scooped up the scattered candies, they circulated among the college students with bashful smiles, offering them handfuls of sweets.

Every day, 6-year-old Gustavo showed up at the worksite wanting to help. He carried rocks, sifted sand, ran errands. The day the tank was finished, the little boy looked up at Shrivastava and asked - as he had 100 times - "¿Esta  listo?" (Is it ready?)

"¡Si, esta listo!" she told him.

"¿Agua?" he asked.

"Si, agua."

"His eyes were so happy," she says. "I didn't think a little kid could be so grateful. The look on his face made it all worth it."

The El Salvador Project has spun the two students' career goals 180 degrees. Shrivastava has abandoned plans for a lucrative auto-industry career in favor of public health and social engineering. As for Crook, his one-time aspiration "to make the most money possible" has morphed beyond recognition. These days, he's thinking about joining the Peace Corps.