U.S. Water News Online
ROLLA, Mo. -- For 15 University of Missouri-Rolla
engineering students, a summer trip to the tropics was far from
The students were part of Engineers Without Borders, a national
group that uses volunteers to help develop public infrastructure in
poor and underdeveloped areas of the world.
In the Rolla students' case, they traveled to the Bolivian
villages of Inka Katurapi and Rio Colorado, both outside the capital
of La Paz.
In Inka Katurapi, they taught the roughly 80 families living in
mud brick homes how to build, operate and maintain composting
latrines for each family.
"Ask anyone there what their most pressing need is and they will
tell you, 'Aqua es vida.' Water is life," said Allison Poulignot, a
19-year-old civil engineering sophomore. "They really need clean
water for drinking, for cooking, for bathing."
Poulignot can attest to that after becoming ill while building
latrines and losing 15 pounds during the 10-day trip.
In Rio Colorado, another group of students mixed mortar and laid
bricks to build new showers for a school and installed plumbing to
handle the increased water flow. Last year, they replaced the
school's shallow, bacteria-filled wells with deeper ones.
"I know that when I graduate I'm going to use my degree to do this
kind of work," said Tom Scroggin, a 21-year-old Rolla senior from
Kansas City, who worked on the Rio Colorado project. "It's powerful
knowing the scope of how much you can affect the world."
Established in 2002, Engineers Without Borders-USA has about 200
chapters around the country and 8,000 members. Sixty percent of the
chapters are made up of college students. Rolla, which is overseeing
two projects in Bolivia and plans a third next year in Honduras, is
one of the more active chapters, said Tracy Beavers, a spokeswoman
for the Longmont, Colo.-based organization.
Chapters must agree to work on a project for five years. Students
make several visits to their chosen villages, accompanied by
professors and sometimes professional engineering members. The
members make sure in preliminary discussions with villagers what are
their most pressing needs and whether they'll be able to keep the
improvements running after the students are gone.
"The nice thing about Engineers Without Borders is we make sure
our projects can be sustained," Beavers said.
Travel expenses, equipment and other needs for the students are
paid by the members themselves, although the national organization
sometimes provides grants. The Rolla students raised more than
$100,000 in corporate donations last year and spent more than half on
the summer projects.
"The vision we have is to create a completely new species of
engineer; the humanitarian engineer," Beavers said. "Our mission is
to make people's lives better all over the world, one community at a
More than 80 percent of the group's projects involve filtering and
routing water in small villages. But members also build clinics and
The Rolla chapter already plans to return to Bolivia next month to
supervise the building of a bridge to connect Inka Katurapi and a
neighboring community over a river.
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