Students Visit Guatemala

Students work to mend Guatemalan water problem

Friday, July 6, 2007
Early evening brings the workday to a close, and a few tired-looking “gringos” secure a gutter on one last house.

Nearby, children set free from school for the day run around, seeking the foreigners’ attention with eager smiles.

A mother, lugging water home from the river, stops to chat with one of the Americans in a mixture of her native Mayan dialect and Spanish.

In the rural community of La Fortuna, Guatemala, home to about 400 people, life is simple but not easy.

“I kept thinking about how much time they spend doing things that don’t take very long here” in the United States, said 22-year-old Cora McCold, who grew up in West Knoxville and found herself in Guatemala in late May.

“So much of their day is made up of fulfilling basic needs — hauling water, cleaning the kids, doing laundry and the dishes,” McCold said.

With a small group of University of Tennessee students and three professors, members of the UT chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a national humanitarian nonprofit organization, McCold spent a week of her summer working to fix a persistent problem: a lack of year-round clean water.

In August of last year, two of the professors, Neal Eash and Forbes Walker, both soil scientists, visited several rural communities in the Central American country to assess their health and agricultural needs.

“Based on that trip, we prioritized La Fortuna to focus our attentions on and get students involved,” Walker said. “Our initial idea was to do agricultural work, but we spoke to communities and pretty much everyone had concerns of water supply.”

According to Ryan Ragsdale, a UT graduate student in environmental soil science and a participant in the project, the people in the community “had to walk a kilometer to the water source, which was a dirty river with ducks swimming in it.”

Walker said the group “wanted to fix the mistakes of the past,” which included “trying to pipe in water from long distances.”

“Our idea was — instead of rely on things that can go wrong — use what nature provides us and collect (water) off a roof,” he said. “Everybody has a tin roof.”

Eash and Walker envisioned a rain-collection system that would provide clean water to supply the community through the dry season. They sparked interest among the UT EWB students, and the group took on the project and submitted it to national EWB for approval and guidance.

Three of the students designed the tanks, receiving class credit, and, after months of planning and fundraising, the group headed south to bring the vision to life.

“I didn’t know what it would be like,” said McCold, who became involved in the project through a friend in EWB. “It was exhausting.”

The trip was no vacation; rather, it was a full-time job that consisted largely of mixing and laying concrete, according to Ragsdale. And it called for daily improvisation.

“A lot of it was having to adapt,” Ragsdale said. “We had a plan, a list of materials, but we got there and the blocks weren’t what we thought — they had a hole in them. And the cement mixer — we were counting on that — didn’t work. So we had to mix by hand.”

In all, the group built three water tanks, covered to prevent debris from entering. The houses, on small lots and in close proximity, were connected to the tanks by pipes.

While in La Fortuna, the group stayed at a clinic run by missionaries, providing a “connection to the community,” McCold said.

And working long hours in the countryside, the group was able to observe daily life, according to Ragsdale.

“One of the best parts of the trip was to see how real Guatemalans live,” he said. “You could go there on vacation and not see the stuff we saw. It really opened my eyes — that’s how most of the world lives.”

Ragsdale said he “noticed the simplicity of their houses and of how they live,” functioning without power or medicine and cooking on open fires.

“I saw a kid cut his finger on a machete cutting sugar cane, and you put a Band-aid on him and his face just lit up,” he said. “Everyone seemed really happy — there were lots of smiles.”

But apart from the smiles, the group noticed problems such as red-tinted hair, pointing to an iron deficiency. UT EWB is “trying to get more stuff going” to help the community, Ragsdale said.

“We’re trying to improve the lives of people by improving water quality, nutrition, etc.,” Walker said. “In the future, once we get the water situation working, we’d like to work on crop-growing abilities and see if we can improve crop yields.”

The professors plan to return to La Fortuna later this year to check for modifications and to spread the use of the technology, Walker said. McCold and Ragsdale also expressed an interest in returning.

“Hopefully this was the first of many trips,” Ragsdale said.

In La Fortuna, the sun begins to fall below the horizon. The mothers gather the children to clean them for dinner, and the fathers begin to arrive home from work.

It’s just another evening in Guatemala, but with a slightly brighter morning ahead.

© 2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
(Used with permission)

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