EWB-USA’s 15,900+ passionate volunteers are the heartbeat of the organization. They give their time, energy and expertise in pursuit of EWB-USA’s vision of a world where every community has the capacity to sustainably meet their basic human needs. Below, EWB-USA volunteer Dipti Jasrasaria offers her perspective on the key to a sustainable project.
EWB-USA’s strong emphasis on sustainability shines to me as what distinguishes it from other student organizations involved with service and development. However, when I first joined EWB-USA three years ago, the term “sustainable engineering project” was thrown around so frequently that I was unsure exactly what it meant or how to achieve it. Through my experience with our chapter’s project in the Dominican Republic, I have come to understand a sustainable project to be one that has the capacity to endure and expand — even after the EWB-USA chapter has left the community.
In March 2012, the EWB-USA Harvard University Chapter began work with the agricultural community of Pinalito, which is home to about 100 residents. During the first assessment trip, our chapter, along with the community, identified access to potable water as the most pressing need. After speaking with the community, we thought that the water distribution system wasn’t working due to a problem in the pump system, and we were confident that this was a problem we could feasibly address.
However, when the chapter returned to Pinalito in January 2013 for our second assessment trip, we found that the problem with the pump actually lay with the well, which was filled with sediment due to improper installation. The scope of our project had suddenly increased drastically in terms of time, expense, and engineering. Now we had to consider not only the existing distribution system, but also a new water source. We weren’t sure whether we had the technical expertise or the community buy-in for these changes.
After much deliberation, our chapter decided to continue the project in Pinalito. More than two years later, we are proud to say that a new well and water distribution system that pipes clean water to tap stands along the community’s main road has been successfully implemented.
I think a huge factor in our project’s success is the emphasis on community involvement and ownership. Over the course of three years and six trips to Pinalito, our relationship with the community flourished. This partnership was facilitated by Manuel Ramos, a Dominican student at Harvard and our cultural liaison and translator, whose charisma and initiative encouraged our chapter’s participation in the community. Each trip, we dedicated time to conducting door-to-door surveys, holding community meetings and eating delicious home-cooked meals in community members’ homes. We also taught a water quality lesson for children at the Pinalito schoolhouse and at other schools in the area and they taught us how to dance bachata like real Dominicans.
As we began to better understand daily life in Pinalito, the community’s trust in our chapter and engagement in the project grew. Community members of all ages were excited to help with trenching and to learn about the proper chlorination and pipe installation processes. They contributed ideas and took a large role in decision-making processes.
I think many first-time EWBers (myself included) are most excited about the technical challenges of a sustainable engineering project. However, I’ve learned over the past few years that strong community relations are as, if not more, important than solving the technical challenges. The community’s active role in the entire project process — from the first needs assessment to the final implementation — gives us confidence that the water distribution system is truly sustainable. We believe it will continue to provide potable water to residents of Pinalito and nearby communities for years to come.