Festival of Lights

1044759_680761655325481_349112904643711280_nIn 2010 I took my first trip to Bolivia and met my new family who would forever change my life.

I was volunteering with Engineers Without Borders in a Community called Los Eucaliptos. The project had already been going on a few years before I became involved, so when our team arrived in the community in 2010 the instillation of a new transformer was just being completed. I first met many of the community members at the dedication ceremony of the transformer and at the following celebration called the “Festival of Lights”. The community was so elated that they finally had electricity. We roasted a pig, played games, had a soccer (football) match, danced by the fire, and sang in celebration.

Unfortunately, the community was still facing many problems. Floodwaters were flushing black water up out 389759_3198072000246_1844692103_nof the community’s septic tanks and into their homes. The Rio Erquis was eroding away the cliff that was supporting their water storage tank. The drill rig we hired to implement the community’s water well broke four drill bits before giving up on drilling through the boulder suffused soil.

Over the next several years 224485_173019479433037_5583269_nwe worked side by side designing and constructing solutions to these problems. We built gabion spurs – large structures of wire baskets filled with rocks to redirect water away from the cliff

side. While we ran the necessary engineering checks for the local spur design, the community led the construction of the spurs. They taught us how to build and tie off the baskets. They divided all of us into different tasks and made sure every single person filled a vital roll. At the end of every day we would sit down to eat the most delicious meals of our lives (made by Tomasa). We would play board games with some of the

kids in the community and then head up to the tank site to gaze at the stars. Over the years we not only built the spurs together, but we also dug drainage canals and culverts to redirect the flood waters. We also improved the water distribution system (thanks to some custom field fabricated fittings by Waldo, brute force by all of us, trenching, and even wheelbarrow mixed concrete pours). Every year I returned to the community to find the projects improved, wheter it was make shift tire bumpers tied to the gabions to protect them, a roof installed over the tank and a fence built around it, or even concrete poured around the culverts. Unfortunately, even with all the effort the community was making to maintain the projects, what was supposed to be our final implementation trip ended up bringing the program to a stand still.

In 2014, I was the program lead and was so excited to lead our final trip to Los Eucaliptos. However, once in the community I was told by my friends that the organization who owned the communities mortgages was threatening to evict461362_345239628877687_542338405_ot them from their homes. Bolivia also went into a severe drought that year and the government confiscated the only drill that would penetrate the soil in the community to drill their own emergency water wells.  Most of my time spent in Bolivia during the summer of 2014 was spent meeting local lawyers, meeting government officials, and meeting with the drill contractor to see what could be done to surmount these issues. The original goal of the program in Los Eucaliptos, was to deliver potable water to the community. This goal had been met with so many delays already. One of the hardest conversations I have ever had, was when we discussed my friends options for keeping their homes and when I told them that their well would be delayed yet again, while we waited for the drought to end.

After a lot of patience and persistence, the drill finally arrived in Los Eucaliptos, and struck water in 2016. Today my friends have potable water and still live in

their homes. Where this project succeeded, as many as 70% of de1044759_680761655325481_349112904643711280_nvelopment projects fail in some countries [1]. Witnessing a project almost fail due to unforeseen risk inspired me to pursue my Ph.D. and not only conduct research to understand potential risk in infrastructure design and construction in developing countries, but also to teach, recruit, and mentor others to help communities in need.

[1] I. Zafar, T. Yousaf, and D. S. Ahmed, “Evaluation of risk factors causing cost overrun in road projects in terrorism affected areas Pakistan – a case study,” KSCE J. Civ. Eng., vol. 20, no. 5, pp. 1613–1620, Jul. 2016.


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