UW students help El Salvadoran towns build wastewater system

by Sandra Knisely, UW-Madison Communications

Photo of people working on wastewater systemNew Year’s Eve in Nejapa, El Salvador, looks a lot like the Fourth of July. At Griselda Guzman’s house, homemade fireworks lighted the front yard, where the guests dancing outside her pale yellow home included 11 University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students and three advisers.

That first night of celebration launched three weeks of local hospitality toward the students, who are members of the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The group spent its winter break in El Salvador to begin construction on a mostly gravity-based wastewater system that will link two nearby communities to the sewer system in the larger city of Nejapa.

Community members from the two small towns of La Granja and Nuevo Ferrocarril approached Rotary International for help in 2005. A contact then turned to the UW-Madison chapter of EWB, a nonprofit organization that partners with communities in the United States and developing countries to undertake sustainable engineering projects.

In El Salvador, residents worked alongside the UW-Madison students digging trenches, laying pipe and packing soil to cover the pipe. Community leaders, schoolchildren and even a grandmother toiled in the heat every day with the EWB volunteers.

“This whole project is for the community-they asked for it, they know they need it, and we were there to help them,” says EWB member Leah Kammel, a natural resources and environmental engineering student.

La Granja is home to 850 El Salvadorans, while Nuevo Ferrocarril has 1,500 residents. The homes, which are pieced together with wood, metal and other materials, only recently received running water.

However, for co-project managers and civil and environmental engineering students Jonathan Blanchard and Kevin Orner, seeing life in El Salvador made them reexamine what they define as poverty. “There are ways that Americans are ‘poorer’ than my El Salvadoran friends,” says Blanchard. “There’s a real sense of community in La Granja and Nuevo Ferrocarril, and a real sense that everyone is connected. So there’s a pervading atmosphere of respect, and a willingness to serve selflessly and lend a hand at the drop of a hat.”

The trip also served as a test of leadership. Upon arriving in El Salvador, the team learned its original design didn’t quite match local building codes and that it would be impossible to dig the trenches merely with shovels in soil Blanchard describes as hard, compact, tropical clay.

Blanchard says the golden rule in a project like this is always to be flexible. After the first few days, the team was ready with a design that did meet code. The students also brought in a backhoe-and the results were a success: The group laid 500 meters of pipe, built five manholes and compacted-by hand-500 cubic meters of soil.

During their trip to El Salvador, EWB members also gave presentations to schoolchildren about sanitary habits and taught local community members how to set up hand-washing stations. Additionally, they took water samples that will be analyzed at the Wisconsin State Health Laboratory of Hygiene to further help community members identify and treat wastewater pathogens.

Ultimately, the wastewater system will stretch approximately 6,700 meters to connect to Nejapa, and UW-Madison EWB members plan to return to El Salvador to help community members as they take over the construction process.

For the students, the trip was an opportunity to blend their technical skills and humanitarian interests. “It was amazing to be able to use our engineering skills and actually make a difference and help people,” says Kammel.