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Eco Latrine Project Continues in Bolivia

LEXINGTON, Va., Aug. 10, 2016 – This summer, for the sixth time, Keydets Without Borders traveled four thousand miles away and 13,000 feet up into the Andes Mountains of Bolivia to improve the quality of life in the village of Pampoyo. The cadets installed eco latrines with solar showers, a simple design that offers the accommodations of an indoor bathroom to people living without running water.

An earlier Keydets without Borders group had installed the latrines in some of the homes last summer.  When the cadets arrived in Pampoyo in May, they found not only that the eco latrines were in use, but that villagers had dressed up some of the rustic structures with porcelain tile.

“One of the villagers said the only problem is his bathroom is better than his house right now,” quipped Maj. Paul Ackerman ’93, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and one of the club’s faculty advisers.

Between last summer and this summer, the group installed 38 of the latrines, enough to give access to all of the approximately 80 families that live in the village.  Most extended families share the same land, so several households share each latrine.

“We tend to design low-technology, but high-impact projects,” explained Ackerman, noting that the village is isolated and doesn’t have electricity.

A group of cadets first designed the eco latrines specifically for the village back in the fall of 2014.  The concrete and masonry structures use solar energy to heat bottles of water on the roof for the showers. The other component, a dry compost latrine, uses UV light to sanitize solid waste.

This summer Ackerman and Lt. Col. Tim Moore, who founded Keydets Without Borders, and recent graduates Patrick Finn ’15 and Reid Anderson ’16, returned to Bolivia with 16 cadets for four weeks.  They attended a conference on global water and sanitation while in La Paz.  Then they spent two weeks in Pampoyo building the structures alongside local residents.

“I was so honored to be a part of this great experience,” said Dakoda Lane ’17. “I will never forget it and how much we mean to the villagers. It was like we were part of their families.”

In fact, each year when the cadets arrive, the villagers greet the group with a feast of llama and potatoes and sing and dance with them into the night.

This year, the cadets spent their days working on the latrine structures, with the villagers teaching them concrete masonry and the cadets implementing the design of their former classmates, which was the highest placing project by an American team at the 2014 Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference student design competition.

While in Bolivia, the group also installed a septic system in the nearby village of Chiracoro. Last summer while surveying the village for potential projects, the cadets noticed that the septic system at the Chiracoro schoolhouse had stopped working. So with the help of the entire village the cadets dug a 300-meter pipeline for the new system.

The group of mostly engineering majors has grown since its first trip to Bolivia. This year the group included biology majors doing health surveys and international studies majors who translated.

Also, with the help Col. Woody Sadler ’66, a member of the one of the local Rotary clubs, the group is now affiliated with Rotary as Keydets Without Borders Rotaractors. The affiliation qualified the group to apply for a Rotary Global Grant, which they received. By turning the $25,000 the cadets raised into $75,000, the grant paid for all of the construction materials they used and some that they need for future projects.  Keydets Without Borders also works with Engineers Without Borders Bolivia, which makes sure the materials are on site when the cadets arrive.

Each eco latrine costs about $900 to construct, and the group hopes in the years ahead to build the structures in Chiracoro as well.  The group also hopes to implement other projects already underway at VMI, including an aquaponics project that will produce both fish and vegetables to improve the villagers’ diet.

Each generation of cadets involved in the experience has had a profound effect on the Bolivians, but the Bolivians have had a profound effect on the cadets as well. 

The most meaningful part for Lane, he said, was being able to “bring the people in the village a way to better their lives and make sure they can provide for their families.”

“We have poverty in the states but it’s nothing compared to what I saw and experienced in Bolivia.”

–Kelly Nye


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