Building a More Sustainable, Climate-Resilient and Just Future with EWB-USA

Climate change is a pressing global challenge that is becoming more urgent and visible each day. EWB-USA’s vision of a world in which every community has the capacity to sustainably meet their basic needs can only be achieved by rising to the challenges presented by climate change and incorporating climate change thinking into the work we do and our own operations.

Elizabeth Joyce, EWB-USA staff Project Engineer specializing in energy and climate, sees the dramatic effects of a changing climate in her work and seeks to help EWB-USA build resilient communities — one project at a time.

Climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, including most of EWB-USA’s partnering communities. As one writer at the Center for Global Development succinctly put it,
“Climate change will be awful for the rich, but catastrophic for the poor.”

Changes to rainfall patterns, rising seawater levels, ocean acidification, and warmer or cooler temperatures greatly impact people’s access to food and clean water, exposure to disease, and access to key resources such as medical services. Subsistence agriculture, which so many of our partner communities depend on as their primary livelihood, faces increasing risks as the changing climate affects growing seasons, water resources and agricultural pests. Climate change will spur more and more humanitarian crises as changes in natural resources inflame armed conflict, and as weather events like droughts and storms force evacuation and displacement.

This is not an abstract concept for EWB-USA. I’ve personally seen climate change’s effects on the projects I’ve worked on over the past decade. I began volunteering with EWB-USA in the late 2000s on a team working with a community in rural Haiti. The remote valley where the community lives is accessed by a single road that crosses a seasonally flooding river at multiple points. These river crossings have become increasingly dangerous every year, causing regular drownings and vehicle loss, and leading EWB-USA to start a project to build bridges at two crossings.

And, when I worked with the Engineering Service Corps (ESC) in Ethiopian refugee camps in 2017, I heard stories from Somali refugee herders of the impacts that a recent drought had on their livelihoods. They told me that an estimated 90 percent of the local community’s livestock had died in the past year, causing widespread famine and forcing many to flee Somalia in search of aid. The Horn of Africa has experienced two severe multi-year droughts in the last decade, and refugees spoke about how unusual it was in their memory to have numerous devastating weather events within such a short time.

Responding to a Changing Climate

But it’s not all gloom and doom. We believe that EWB-USA is uniquely positioned to respond to the  challenges brought on by climate change. With engineering technology, we can empower our partners to prepare for and adapt to climate change – whether through improved irrigation systems, stronger buildings and infrastructure to withstand future storms, water systems with increased capacity for drought, or clean energy systems that sustainably power equipment. By supporting engineering projects that improve resilience and the ability to adapt, we can help our partner communities protect themselves against future shocks and offer readiness in the face of an uncertain future.

Our Climate Work in Action

Many EWB-USA projects are already responding to the challenges of climate change.

  • In Dominica, we helped the Dominican Ministry of Housing and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) assess buildings that were damaged in Hurricane Maria, and we are now helping develop a country-wide resiliency strategy that prepares infrastructure to better withstand future storms.
  • In Cambodia, we are working with the O’rana community to create a water storage plan to address water shortages and lack of water access. The community has noticed longer seasons without rain in recent years, that are causing their primary sources of water — boreholes and natural streams — to dry up.
  • In Kenya and India, we are helping UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) identify and implement energy upgrades to its field operations, such as energy efficient equipment and solar power. This IKEA Foundation-supported project will allow UNICEF to operate more sustainably and safely.
  • In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the island of St. John was stripped of protective vegetation by two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017, causing sinking around the only road between the eastern and western halves of the island. Subsequent storms continue to cause erosion and stormwater pollutant runoff to enter bays from steep hillsides. We’re helping the island address these issues through hillside stabilization measures and control of stormwater runoff.

In addition to our project support around the world, EWB-USA is looking at our own carbon footprint and examining how to implement our projects in a more efficient way. Initiatives under consideration include improved design guidelines and technical resources, measurement of EWB-USA’s carbon footprint, better project monitoring and evaluation indicators, and increased coordination with EWB-USA’s country offices and local partners.

Be Part of the Solution

EWB-USA welcomes interested volunteers to bring their ideas and expertise to our Climate Change Task Force. Volunteers in all technical disciplines who are passionate about this issue and can commit a few hours a month are encouraged to apply — especially those who have experience in engineering for climate change.

Climate change is arguably the greatest challenge our world faces, and one that directly threatens many of our close friends and partners. The EWB-USA community has the knowledge, skills and motivation to tackle this challenge together and continue to build a more sustainable, resilient and just world.

About the Author
Elizabeth Joyce
Engineers Without Borders USA's Elizabeth Joyce has worked extensively with our Engineering Service Corps specializing in climate change mitigation projects and refugee camp settings.