Every year when Guatemala’s six-month-long rainy season ends around November and the sun comes out, tourists flock to picturesque sites like Guatemala City and Antigua to frolic under cloudless blue skies.
For many Guatemalans, however, life is anything but a vacation. When the seasonal rains stop, rivers and streams dry up and 87,000 families in Momostenango and other rural areas in the mountainous northeast must walk miles to find water at distant streams. And the dirty water they haul back to their homes often leads to outbreaks of illness.
But their plight is improving, thanks to Engineers Without Borders, a student group at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, that has taken on the mission of providing the community with a reliable source of clean, potable water. The group is a chapter of the national nonprofit humanitarian organization that conducts sustainable engineering projects to meet basic human needs in 45 countries around the world.
Students team up to form welded wire into a frame for an 8,000-liter rainwater-collection tank.
In 2006, a team of UCLA engineering students and professional engineers traveled to Momostenango to confer with elected officials, local NGOs, water experts and contractors. The solution they hit upon was a home system for harvesting rainwater during the wet months and storing it for the dry season using ferrocement water tanks — wire mesh cylinders covered with a thin wall of cement.
Every summer since, teams of UCLA engineering students have traveled to the community, rolled up their sleeves and built tanks. Last summer, David Ly and six other UCLA students worked in the Momostenango village of Chocantairy constructing two 8,000-liter water tanks at the homes of two families.
David Ly (far left) and his team apply several layers of cement to the frame.
The team first cleared a site beside each home, formed unwieldy sheets of welded wire into a cylindrical frame and covered it with chicken wire, and then applied a thin layer of cement. The finished tank was then connected to the home’s rain gutters.
"It was hard at first, but as the days went on, we got used to it," said Ly, a fourth-year engineering student majoring in materials science and engineering. Much of the work had to be done in the rain. "We had to wear ponchos and put tarps over our work space."
"It’s a lot harder work than many of them are accustomed to," said Tony Antich, a civil engineer who travels with students as their volunteer mentor. Antich served as Santa Monica’s chief city engineer for 19 years. "They have a lot of energy, and they learn to make do with the materials they have" — rudimentary tools and overturned plastic crates in lieu of ladders. "The amazing thing about it is that they’re having fun while they’re doing it." Visits from curious local children chattering excitedly in Spanish and the local K’iche dialect "helped brighten the mood," Ly said.
Proud engineering students stand with the Guatemalan family that will use the new tank that will supply water for daily living.
Each rainwater-filled tank can provide a family with more than a third of their drinking water during the dry season. Drawn from a faucet at the bottom of the tank, water is then poured through a clay filtration system and boiled for cooking or drinking.
A local NGO, CasaSito, makes the tough decisions about which families will receive tanks, based on family size, among other factors. Families can help with construction, but the students are in charge. Even before the young engineers get to Guatemala, they have honed their skills at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, where they have built an almost identical tank to collect rainwater for a vegetable garden.
Over five summers, 17 rainwater catchment tanks have been built, a drop in the bucket compared to the tremendous need there. The good news is that three of those tanks were built by community members trained by the UCLA students, who also created a manual with photos, diagrams and instructions in Spanish.
Women and children no longer have to walk miles every day to collect sometimes dirty water from distant streams.
"Our goal has always been for this to be self-sustaining," said Ly, who will head back to Guatemala June 17 — three days after he graduates — to serve as team leader. "We are slowly transitioning the responsibilities to the community." The project not only provides more tanks to families, but provides local jobs funded by the student group and CasaSito. He and his team are hoping to cut the $850 cost of a tank to around $150 by altering the design or using less expensive materials.
"They have to apply the engineering they’re learning in school to make a better product," said Antich. "It’s a great learning experience for students entering the working world. I feel very proud about the work that they’ve done and the way that they’ve demonstrated themselves as caring more for others than just for themselves."
Ly said he has learned much about project management and teamwork as well as fundraising: He has raised more than $12,000 to help cover costs of construction, travel and lodging for this summer’s project by giving presentations to rotary clubs and professional organizations.
But even more important, said Ly, is the satisfaction he receives from helping others. "I do it mainly for the families," he said. "We in the United States have so much. We just have to figure out how we can help people in places that aren’t as fortunate as us."