This past summer, I travelled to Ayaviri, Perú to work with the organization Caritas-Minsur. This NGO specializes in development of small communities (less than 600 people) in the Melgar region of the Andes. Within Caritas, I worked mostly with the engineers responsible for development of water and sanitation infrastructure. Some of the things I was responsible for were visiting communities to monitor construction of gravity-fed water systems, talking with community members about health and sanitation habits, and designing a small water system for a group of nine families and a preschool.
Some of the fun things I got to do included making friendships with sanitation social workers, travelling around the various cities of Southern Perú, conversing with Quechua-speakers who spoke hardly any Spanish, and learning all about la gastrónomia peruana. (Alpaca meat is not my favorite, but besides that, I think Perú has some of the best food in the world!)
In Perú about 20 percent of the population lacks access to clean water, and another 40 percent lacks access to basic sanitation. The statistics are even worse in rural areas. The sanitation department of Caritas tries to address this serious lack of resources in three ways: involvement of local governments and community leaders in water projects, social awareness training about water and sanitation, and development of appropriate infrastructure.
As an engineer, designing a water or sanitation system from the technical viewpoint is rather straight forward; however, the sustainability of a water project comes from an engineer’s ability to really understand the political and social constraints that can affect every detail of the design. For example, at Caritas we chose to edit our composting latrine design to close off the concrete chambers that are used to hold the excrement because we learned that in some communities, where the women were used to going out in the bushes to do their business, that the latrines were being used to keep their guinea pigs (commonly eaten in Perú). It can be a very delicate process changing the habits of people, not to mention their governments, and development engineers are always learning from their mistakes. I feel very fortunate that I was able to learn about this as an undergraduate, and hopefully I will someday be able to contribute as a civil engineer and as a leader in this field.