In their own words: EWB-WWU student engineers (part 2)

Chris Ghazal outlines how successful sustainability outcomes for EWB-WWU projects involve deliberate planning throughout each phase of the project

Chris Ghazal is a senior from Redlands, California, who is working on a double major in business administration and mechanical engineering. He is the international project manager for the 2016 EWB-WWU project in Japura, Peru. Chris also enjoys soccer, cars, tennis, and food! Next year—before he graduates in June 2017—Chris will be the executive vice president for the Associated Students of Walla Walla University. Chris gave the following presentation at the 2016 EWB-WWU fundraising gala in February.

Sustainability is a word that I have heard used a lot recently in regard to humanitarian work. And rightfully so! In an engineering project, where the goal is to address a need, sustainability is arguably the most important component of the whole undertaking.

By observing project after project that failed after successful initial implementation, humanitarians, philanthropists, engineers, and the like quickly realized that the technical details of a project are not all that matters. In fact, those details aren’t even the most important part.

Education is.

Sustainability is achieved through education and community empowerment. These things are much more consequential than an excellent design.

In 2002, these ideals about sustainability in the context of engineering projects materialized into an organization. Founded by an engineering professor from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Engineers Without Borders was created with the goal of sharing the message of sustainability with engineers around the world.

EWB’s objective is to provide a network to channel the energy of enthusiastic student and professional engineers to create lasting positive change around the world through collaboration and education. Their goal of partnering with communities to implement these changes is captured well in their mission and vision statements:

Mission: Engineers Without Borders builds a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. EWB-USA’s vision is a world in which every community has the capacity to sustainably meet their basic human needs.

So the mission is to empower individual communities to meet their basic human needs, with a vision of every community developing this ability.

A focus on sustainability is key to our project process, but a little tricky to implement. At Walla Walla University, we accomplish this by thinking about sustainability throughout the project process. I will tell you about the some of the things we do before, during, and after our projects are implemented.

Before the project

Our chapter puts significant thought into a project and a community before agreeing to partner with them. It is absolutely critical that the project we select is “community driven.” The project needs to look like something that the community members are just itching to do, rather than something that best suits our interests.

For example, Pantineque, the community EWB-WWU worked with last year, had already tried and failed to construct a water system before we got there. They had the desire and energy, they just lacked proper materials and the engineering insight to create a functional system.

We also carefully select our project partners. I spoke about the importance of the community buy-in to the project, but the support of the local government is just as important. The local government can make things happen. I remember being in desperate need of more sand and gravel to complete one of our projects last year. After a few hours, a phone call, and a bit of haggling with our friends at the local municipality, a dump truck showed up with what we needed.

We also partner with a Nongovernmental Organization—ADRA Peru. That organization provides us with the necessary logistical support and communication with the community to make our projects a success.

During the project

One of the first things we do after selecting a project is establish a committee of community members to oversee the project. This September, during an assessment trip for our current project, we asked the community members to identify leaders to represent them in this project.

During the project, we take community members with us every step of the way. Additionally, we have an education plan that is focused on teaching the community about the system that we are constructing.

Next, we require a 5 percent cash contribution from the community. It is important to work with a community that has the capacity to financially maintain and is willing to commit financially to the undertaking. This, however, often presents challenges when working with a community with a non-cash-based culture. Business is often conducted by trading alpaca and potatoes rather than Soles, the official currency of Peru.

After the project

Finally, we focus on sustainability even after our projects are done.

We leave an operation and maintenance manual that describes how to fix any problems that we can foresee. We designate an Empower Committee to take charge of the system. We commit to each area for five years, making monitoring trips back to successful projects to help us learn how to make our future projects more effective and sustainable.

There are so many needs to keep in mind when doing a complete humanitarian project. Technical design is just a piece of the puzzle. Sustainability is another.

This focus on sustainability does not come naturally to many of us as engineers, but we have things in place to help us along the way, such as being careful to select a community driven project before we commit to anything, carefully training community members and involving them in the process during project implementation, and empowering community members to own their system after we complete the project.

Posted April 1, 2016

Chris Ghazal, WWU senior business administration and mechanical engineering major