A journey up the mountain with Engineers without Borders

A journey up the mountain with Engineers without Borders

By Joseph Hunn, PE

Most of us never think twice about our access to clean sanitation systems. But that access is not a guarantee for those who live in the small community of Parque Colani in Western Bolivia. It was hard to believe that 85% of the community has no access to functioning latrines. Residents are forced to use the outdoors, resulting in human waste being deposited in open fields where it can contaminate surface water, crops and any nearby items. These conditions have taken quite a toll. Community members in 60% of Parque Colani households have suffered terrible illnesses. I was shocked to learn that the second leading cause of death for children under the age of five is diarrhea.

I wanted to help so I joined the University of California-Davis Chapter of Engineers without Borders to build a latrine system at Parque Colani’s community center, and to assist with drawing up plans for future construction. I was part of an amazing team that included local volunteers. We worked together to complete the system, which included two latrines, a hand washing station, stairs, and a privacy wall to serve as a model for future construction in the village.

Pictured: UC Davis students with local residents

The project wasn’t without its challenges. Working on a mountain at an altitude of 12,000 feet was quite interesting! The biggest obstacle was getting the necessary materials to the construction site. Parque Colani is in a remote location with limited road access making it difficult for trucks to get through. Instead, deliveries had to be unloaded higher up the mountain and carried down by hand. It was tough and added more strain to the intense work, but our team pulled it off successfully.

To prevent improper waste disposal, we made sure that each latrine was connected to a water line allowing the waste to be flushed into a hand-dug decomposition pit. Once the waste decomposes to the point where it’s safe to handle in the decomposition pit, it can be removed and used to fertilize farming fields in the surrounding area.

We knew it was very important to fully involve the community in the project, so we held several community meetings and met with the mayor. We listened to the needs expressed by residents and made sure that we kept them updated on the project’s progress. We spent time with the community in other ways too. When we weren’t on the construction site, we were able to visit local schools to teach kids about water contamination and proper handwashing techniques. We worked hard but we managed to find time to unwind with the kids – playing soccer and joining singalongs once the school day was over, which was a blast.

Pictured: Completed latrines with room for future expansion

With the new latrine system in place, the team is looking ahead to future construction. They surveyed the locals to figure out where the next set of latrines should be built, and a future trip is already being organized. I wouldn’t miss it.

Being associated with Engineers without Borders is incredibly rewarding. I feel like I receive much more than I give on these trips. It’s truly amazing to me that there are still places in the world with living conditions like those in the mountains of Bolivia, which lack the basic amenities that we take for granted every day. To me, it is the responsibility of those of us who are fortunate to live in a country where higher education is so accessible, to use that knowledge and skill to bring a higher quality of life to those parts of the world without the resources to do so. The experience I had in Parque Colani will stay with me. It reminded me how proud I am to be part of a profession that can impact lives so powerfully.

Cotter is proud of Joe‘s continuing support of Engineers without Borders. Click here to connect with him on LinkedIn.