What is Engineers Without Borders (EWB)?
Engineers Without Borders started in April 2000 at the University of Colorado in Boulder by a civil engineer named Dr. Bernard Amadei. He was invited by a representative of the Belize Ministry of Agriculture to assess a community’s water supply. He traveled to San Pablo, Belize with a group of students, where they created a well and various other projects.
Since that original project in 2002, EWB has blown up in popularity. It operates worldwide, and has more than 400 chapters in the U.S. alone. There are universities all over the world that send skilled students and working professionals to developing countries to assist with basic needs, mainly providing clean water and sanitation. EWB-ers are helping rural villages while gaining experience and having fun along the way.
What was your project in Nepal?
In Ilam, Nepal we built tap stands, concrete structures built around a spring source that has been dug up out of a mountain. People then have a clean running pipe and wash surface. They are basic structures, but very effective in getting water to where it can be useful.
Our team built one such tap stand and cleaned out another, and along the way we did a lot of surveying and held community meetings, as working with EWB also means frequent negotiations with people who live in the project location.
How did your project make a difference?
Any project starts with the needs of the people. In Nepal, there is little education about the difference between clean and dirty water. Dysentery is a part of life. Most Nepalis experience it and believe that having it is just what it means to be human.
Their faces light up when they get access to clean water, because often they’ve never had the opportunity before. That said, it feels amazing to be able to build things like tap stands and give people an entirely different, healthier life.
What surprised you about Nepal?
What surprised me at first was people’s overall happiness. Nepalis in particular are just incredibly grateful, giving, and welcoming. The people I worked with or encountered on the streets in Ilam seemed chipper all day long. I didn’t see one person down in the dumps throughout the whole month I spent there.
One of my first interactions with Hindu culture turned out to be surprising and amusing, too. We were at a site with a tap stand that was very old and broken. Five feet away from the tap stand was a temple built around a huge tree, a peepal tree. Peepal trees are sacred fig trees, a sign of Shiva, the god associated with water and snakes. The community’s concern was that while people were washing or bathing themselves, they could also be splashing the temple with dirty water.
When I learned this, I was with the Nepali community leader and an older, Western engineer. We asked the community leader why he would like us to work on this, and what he would like us to improve.
The leader said to us that if the water splashed the temple, Shiva would get angry and the cobras would come. For a split second, the look on the lead engineer’s face was phenomenal, but he composed himself, made a note, and we took that information into equal consideration when we made our analysis.
What was your favorite lesson or takeaway from the trip?
Another engineer and I did some surveying after just one meeting with the community. We came back with data and talked to the community a week later, but they wanted something completely different than in our original meeting.
The lesson for us, and any other future engineers was to always, always communicate thoroughly. Have meetings, integrate even more into the community with our project, and constantly be communicating with the people.
The beautiful thing about EWB is that we travel with a purpose. It’s not just sight-seeing, taking pictures of Nepal while trying to stay at a safe distance. Being on a project through EWB says, “I’m here, benefitting the people, and I see the results.” In that respect, I felt in the realm of service, which was and is rewarding.
Jonathan Ernster is a Colorado native, a global citizen and a lover of life. He blends adventure with engineering through humanitarian efforts. He has traveled to Perú, the Galápagos, and Nepal with Engineers Without Borders, a global organization building a better world through engineering projects and empowering communities. He is currently working with EWB while living in beautiful Boulder, Colorado and is looking for new ways to bring compassion and travel into engineering.