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Lehigh EWB making a positive impact in Nicaragua

It’s 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and members of the Lehigh student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) are converging on a classroom in the STEPS building.

The students open their laptops and begin placing phone calls to Cebadilla, a village in southwestern Nicaragua where EWB has helped build a new water-distribution system.

They make a call to Antonia, who works with a Nicaraguan organization called Earth Fund, or Fundación Tierra. Silvia Rosado ’20, a mechanical engineering major, asks Antonia in Spanish about the biosand filters that are being installed in Cebadilla’s homes to purify drinking water.

The EWB students have tested the water from the new distribution system. Now they need to learn how many of Cebadilla’s residents are using and maintaining biosand filters to purify water. The goal is to ensure that the water meets World Health Organization (WHO) standards and to determine if additional treatments are necessary.

The EWB chapter heard about Cebadilla’s plight three years ago from Earth Fund. They had solved a similar problem in Pueblo Nuevo, Honduras, by helping to build a storage tank and water-distribution system. For its efforts, the chapter received a Davis Projects for Peace prize in 2009.

Until recently, the residents of Cebadilla relied on hand-dug wells for drinking water. But a severe drought caused some wells to dry up, and residents had to truck in water. Runoff from nearby latrines also necessitated a deeper well.

After careful consideration, the students decided they could have a similar impact on Cebadilla.

“We go through a process before we pick a community to work with,” says mechanical engineer Gustavo Grinsteins Planchart ’18, chair of the EWB translating committee. “The community has to have both the skills and the drive to go ahead with a project—to complete it and then maintain it. Our job is to collaborate with them to accomplish the project. ... We are the organizers but at the end of the day, we’re all working together.”

The Lehigh chapter of EWB has about 50 student members. Many have made week-long trips to Cebadilla to get to know its residents and assess their needs, and then to design the water-distribution system and oversee its construction.

The chapter is advised by Kristen Jellison, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Richard N. Weisman, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering; Daniel Zeroka, an engineering technician in the department; and Mark Orrs, professor of practice in the department of political science and director of Lehigh’s sustainability program.

Lehigh’s EWB chapter gets most of its funding from the national EWB organization, which receives grants from private corporations and divides them among individual chapters depending on their track records and on the importance of a project. The chapter also solicits donations on its web page, and its fundraising committee writes grant proposals.

EWB requires a regular time commitment outside class. Its five committees—translating, fundraising, social, projects and outreach—meet once a week, as does the executive board. EWB members estimate they spend five to 10 hours a week working for the chapter, and they say the time is well spent.

Read the full story at the Lehigh University News Center.

-Kurt Pfitzer is the Manager of Editorial Services with Lehigh University's Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

May 16, 2017

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