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Club Project Brings Water to Bolivian Village

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LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 25, 2011 -- On the heels of a job well done, the VMI chapter of Engineers without Borders is already focusing on its next endeavor:  fundraising for Phase 2 of an irrigation project begun in Bolivia in August.

We have so many people who are interested; I sense a real growth in this program, said Maj. Tim Moore '97, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, the club's faculty adviser. And I think students are really searching for this kind of experience, something above and beyond just being a student.

The original goal of the Bolivian project was to build an irrigation system to support crops and livestock in Pampoyo, a farming village situated 13,000 feet above sea level in the countryís Potosi Region.  Moore said village water was so contaminated with lead and silver from mining runoff that farm animals were dying because they refused to drink it.

During Phase I, club members built a catchment basin upstream from the mining operation and laid 2,000 feet of pipe downstream.  Moore said each morning about 20 villagers from Pampoyo waited for the EWOB group at the top of the hill so they could help out.  Several of the locals were old men who used their hands to help dig the 2,000 feet of trench space, which was completed in only two days.

Since August is wintertime in Bolivia, working conditions weren't always ideal.  Although midday temperatures often reached the 60s in the sun, mornings were cold, with temperatures often in the teens and 20s.  Club members all slept in a one-room school house.

It was pretty intense, Moore said.  

The plan now is to raise the $15,000 needed to purchase the remaining 8,000 feet of irrigation pipe, which will be shipped to Bolivia and installed by locals who were trained and taught the route of the pipeline by chapter members.  Moore will take another group to Pampoyo in June to install two 6,000-liter water storage tanks and put the finishing touches on the 10,000-foot pipeline, which will pipe the water from the catchment basin to tanks that will make it accessible for irrigation.

The Bolivian irrigation project has been a collaborative effort between VMI and W&L students and faculty.  This summer, four W&L students accompanied the six cadets who made the trip, along with W&L engineering professor Jon Erickson.  A recent club meeting was attended by about 25 cadets and 12 W&L students who were interested in getting involved with EWOB.

Matthew Waalkes í13, a biology major who is seeking a writing minor, went to Pampoyo in June mainly because he wanted to do humanitarian work.  As part of a writing internship, though, he also handled public relations and recorded health surveys of villagers. 

Seeing the conditions that the villagers lived in was disheartening and illuminating, Waalkes said. The trip also made me aware of the difference between poverty and destitution. These people had so little. And yet they seemed happier, more satisfied with life.

Waalkes would like to return to Pampoyo next summer, but he said interest in the trip is running so high among students that he might step back to let someone else go.

Moore said the work in Pampoyo is a sustained effort that will continue year after year until they tell us they no longer need us. Future projects could include construction of latrines, schools and health clinics.  

Women who are pregnant have to walk three hours to the nearest medical facility, aid Nohelia Martin '08, a VMI alumna from La Paz who served as the group's translator in Bolivia.  

VMI's chapter has received strong support from both the department of civil engineering and the dean's office, including seed money for operations.  The club is also reaching out to local Rotary clubs and businesses and the VMI alumni community for support.  Cadets must pay their own travel expenses.

Anyone wishing to contribute may visit the chapter's site at www.vmiewb.com/donate.html or the VMI Foundation's site at www.vmialumni.org/donate. To make sure the donation goes to the Pampoyo project, select other and then type in ìEWBVMI.î

VMI's Engineers without Borders became an official chapter in December of 2010.  Guided by Moore, the club has elected officers and is working cooperatively with the Blue Ridge professional chapter of Engineers without Borders.

Engineers without borders is a misnomer; it's biologists, chemists, business majors, anybody coming together to do one thing, which is help people, Moore said.

--George Abry 

--VMI--