Notes from the field

A student-based group perspective on providing water infrastructure in Guatemala



Water Infrastructure

At North Dakota State University, the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (NDSU EWB) focuses on providing water infrastructure to low and middle income countries. Originally, the chapter was comprised of six members, but has since grown to 13 over the years. Every project is associated with hundreds of hours of work and many lessons learned for the members. Three student members recall personal stories on being a part of a student-based organization working to provide a community with access to quality water.

"The student chapter of Engineers Without Borders focuses on providing water infrastructure to low and middle income countries."

In the last seven years, the students have been collaborating on projects throughout Guatemala.  Projects primarily occurred in a rural Guatemalan village called Las Tablitas. Three projects have been completed and two additional projects have been proposed, concluding a total five year commitment in Guatemala. Completed projects include installing 14 tap water systems, a three-room school house, and nine tap water systems. Projects accrued various budgets, with the most expensive project totaling over $25,000 USD.

There are various challenges that the group faced in completing the projects in Guatemala. One persistent challenge was funding. The first water project cost approximately $15,000 USD, all of which was fundraised by the students. Fundraising not only takes a significant amount of time, but has a large amount of uncertainty associated with it. Funds were eventually raised through the reliance and output of various companies. Another challenge focuses on communication between the students and the community in Guatemala. Constant communication takes place during the planning and design phases in order to obtain necessary information (e.g. soil data, available materials, etc) to implement a successful project. This communication occurs through a sponsored non-profit in Guatemala via email and Skype; internet connectivity, translational errors, and time zones contribute to the lengthy process. Once the students arrive to the community, the biggest challenge is the language-barrier. The community speaks a native language, Qui-che, and only a few leaders and children are also able to communicate in Spanish. Translations are continually needed and some information gets lost in translation.  Differences also occur culturally; it is important to understand cultural differences and appropriately adapt in order to garner the respect of the community members.

Children on the project site
Children on the project site.

Kevin’s story:

I have been in the EWB group for a total of three years now and have been able to travel twice to Guatemala and will be traveling again this year. Our first project was a water system that supplied water to about 15 houses. There were many difficulties that we encountered while designing and implementing this project.  We had to redesign a large portion of the project due to the fact that there were different circumstances than we initially thought There were differing opinions on building standards; you see, the community was focused more on “getting the project done” versus “finishing a well-built project.”  This difference of opinions created strains in relationships, but we overcame it by developing a new plan together.  The project went very smooth once we collaborated on this new direction. In fact, by working together and taking the community’s perspective into account, we were able to dig 5,000 ft. of trenches in only a few days’ time.

The next year, we wanted to build more within the community; we sought to complement access to water with a proper school.  This was very difficult and took over 500 hours to design.  The construction of the school went much smoother than the previous water project, but was a much larger and more sophisticated project. This trip was significantly more different than the first trip because I had gained cultural knowledge and was able to aptly employ it.  I knew what to expect from the community and many of the villagers remembered who I was, which provided me with a sense of comfort.  This year, I am looking forward to my third trip because we are adding more to the initial water system- we are distributing the water supply to an additional 15 houses. The project design took around 200 hours as a group to complete, but we feel more confident in the application and implementation process more than we have in the past.

I am very excited to complete the water expansion project.  I hope to develop more community connections and continue to provide direct and indirect application to my education. Over the years, I have learned the culture of the community is very different from the American culture. They sincerely appreciate anything that they receive that is above what is necessary for survival. These projects do have a fairly substantial cost regarding time commitment and monetarily, but at no point do I ever feel there is something better that time and money should be directed towards. These trips give us students the experience of a lifetime while positively contributing and changing the lives of others. I can honestly say being a part of this project has changed my life.

A child using the water project.

Chris’ story:

Back when I initially decided to become an engineer, I knew I wanted to bring infrastructure to the world, so I decided to become a Civil Engineer. This dream became a reality when I joined Engineers Without Borders (NDSU EWB), but little did I know how much of an impact this decision would have on my life.

The first year I joined NDSU EWB, it was a rocky year for our chapter. This was the first time that we were working on a project with only limited supervision- and our inexperience was transparent. Let me provide some background. Upon submitting a final design plan to the national chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a TAC advisory committee reviews the designs.   Our initial project was rejected the first year. This was a tough time for us as students because we had spent so much time on developing the project and to see it fail, well, it felt like a waste of time.  There was plenty talk of disbanding, but we didn’t go that route.  The members who were returning next year reunited and redesigned the project.  After submission, it was immediately approved.  The following year, we completed our first water system project in March, 2012.

We experienced our next challenge in the 2012-2013 project year.  Our budgeted cost for the project was estimated to be over $25,000 USD. Despite this significant financial goal, we were able to get donations from local companies and also personal donations from giving people. The overall time frame for this project was about 1000 hours of work through 7 members.

Personally, the most difficult challenge I faced occurred last year when I took on being the President of NDSU EWB. This was particularly tough for me since I did not have any former experience with leading an organization or being the manager of a professional project. Some issues that I faced while taking on this leadership position included using time management skills to insure that all aspects of the project were completed on time, and that the project overall meet the necessary standards. Even though I faced some difficult issues, I am extremely grateful that I was given the chance to lead the chapter and get the water system completed during the 2013-2014 project year.

Having been a part of three projects in Guatemala, there are quite a few things that I learned from this experience. The first being how important effective communication is with your project contacts and the second is on the difference of design standards between Guatemalan and the USA. I also learned that it is important to know available materials within the country and how these materials differ in quality compared to those in the states. The final and biggest lesson I learned from working on these projects was that you need flexibility; working in a cross-culture setting means that you have to be able to rework your design in the field and be able to work around changes that may have happened between your assessment, designing, and implementation.

Before I joined NDSU EWB I only knew that I wanted to be an engineer and work in the United States. Now that I have been in the organization for four years and am nearing my graduation date, I realize that I want to do so much more. I plan on joining a professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders while continuing to bring clean, quality water alongside necessary infrastructure to populations in need.

Amanda’s story:

I became an engineer because I wanted to be able to have a profession where I would be able to provide a valuable service within my own community and throughout the world. By pairing double majors in Engineering and International Studies, I hoped that I would be able to travel and help communities obtain their basic human rights to clean water, healthy food, shelter, and education. Engineers without Borders provided me with this exact opportunity.

What I did not expect when joining EWB was everything that I would gain from the experience. I learned many valuable engineering lessons regarding water system designs alongside real world construction experience. One of those lessons was the importance of air release valves in water mains. After connecting our system to our spring collection box during the March 2012 trip we found that no water was making it threw the pipe to the tank. This drew many concerns from our group along with from the community as to what had gone wrong during the construction. It was finally discovered that there was air trapped in the line during construction. We were able to help the air escape by adjusting the line, and the water was able to flow freely.

I also directly experienced community togetherness; EWB gave me the opportunity to take part in my first city council meeting as an engineer while presenting a project for the community in Guatemala. I learned how to effectively communicate on a community-level about needs assessment and was able to explain how a system works and the systems limitations. EWB provided the opportunity to not only discover what it means to be an engineer, but how to actively engage in engineering practices. On a personal note, the projects also gave me a greater appreciation of the services available in the United States; this includes everything from storm sewers allowing us to continue travel even during storms to running water in our homes that is always available and safe to drink.

A final note

After completing three projects for the community in Las Tablitas in Guatemala, the members of NDSU EWB have realized the importance of the application of bringing clean water to those without it. The amount of support that Las Tablitas has giving us when we are implementing these projects is remarkable. In our experience, the community members sincerely wanted successful development of these projects because they realize the privilege of having access to water and how it will vastly improve their quality of life. Despite the hundreds of hours of work that each member in the EWB puts into these projects, the sacrifice of our time is worth the happiness that ensues.  We realize that the reciprocity we receive from these projects is far greater than anything money can buy.  Being able to provide for a community in need and building relationships and friendships alongside our projects is unsurpassed.

"The positive impact of water is endless."

Ultimately, we have not only gained camaraderie within our own group, but have been given the opportunity to collaborate with gracious community members in the developing world to provide access to quality water.  The positive impact of water is endless.  Water has provided the link to our own personal growth and provided us with insight and direction to continue our work in helping alleviate the world of poverty; water has also been given to a community and will help alleviate a myriad of health and social concerns.  


Engineers Without Borders, students, water infrastructure, civil engineering, Guatemala

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