Hands-On and Human
Humanitarian Engineering Corps completes Bolivian water supply system and looks to next international project
Anson Lunstrum came to the University of Idaho with a curiosity for how tools worked and a goal of using that curiosity to help others.
“I am a very hands-on learner,” said the mechanical engineering senior. “I had been looking for something to be involved with that would let me get my hands dirty and improve the lives of those less fortunate than myself.”
Few undergraduates take hands-on as literally as Lunstrum and other students in the University of Idaho Humanitarian Engineering Corps (HEC), installing pipeline at 13,000 feet above sea level in the community of Carani near La Paz, Bolivia, and the snowcapped Andes mountains.
Since 2012, U of I College of Engineering students and faculty have been traveling to Bolivia to improve dilapidated municipal drinking water supply systems keeping communities from clean and accessible water.
“Engineering work can be so removed at times from the humans it is benefitting. It was incredibly motivating to see first-hand the benefit I was able to provide to complete strangers.” Anson Lunstrum, Mechanical Engineering Senior
“Engineering work can be so removed at times from the humans it is benefitting,” Lunstrum said. “It was incredibly motivating to see first-hand the benefit I was able to provide to complete strangers.”
Lunstrum is one of many U of I undergraduates from a variety of majors who worked directly with Carani community members over the years to lay about three miles of pipeline, install new break pressure and storage tanks, and provide tap stands for water distribution to about 34 families currently using the completed system.
Work is done through a partnership between HEC, U of I’s interdisciplinary student organization, and Engineers in Action (EIA), a nonprofit organization that assists international communities to improve health and economic conditions through sustainable projects focused on potable water and sanitation.
The Carani project began in 2012 with an initial assessment trip, followed by implementation trips every summer. Former HEC president Nathan Suhr ’16 was part of the first implementation trip in 2013.
“As an engineer, you are taught how to design, do calculations and how to find solutions by looking at challenges in unique ways,” said the chemical engineering graduate. “But when you think about having to modify your design based on social constraints, that’s a very difficult thing to ask a young engineer to do.”
The unique situation in Carani demanded a solution with minimal cost and strong community buy-in for continued maintenance and support once the project was complete.
“We didn’t quite realize how much in-country support we were going to need,” Suhr said. “So often engineering projects involve informing the community about what’s going to happen after it’s already happened. We needed the Carani community’s involvement from day one.”
That meant forming relationships, despite the social constraints, language barriers and cultural differences, not to mention the looming threat of altitude sickness in one of the highest locations in the world.
“I was excited to practice what I’d learned in classes, being in a place where I could do something that mattered,” said civil engineering graduate Monica Evans ’19. “I’d spent all year preparing for this, but it was still a mental and physical battle.”
Evans traveled to Bolivia during the 2016 and 2018 trips. Over the course of the two trips, she helped install a mile and half’s worth of pipeline with water distribution points along the way. She said she remembered sitting under a tarp one day waiting for rain to clear with a Carani community member, trying to learn the word for “rain” in Aymara, the official language of Bolivia.
“We were always working with and learning from community members,” she said. “They wanted to be there to dig their trenches, install their tap stands and see their houses get water, too.”
Over the years working with U of I, visits to Carani have changed drastically for EIA project manager Juan Antonio Chinchilla Martinez.
“My first time to Carani, no one was waiting for me. I had to knock on doors to gather volunteers,” he said. “At that point, no one was really sure what we were going to be able to accomplish. But by the end of the project, we almost had too many volunteers to work around.”
Martinez said the community has held a general assembly and established an official water regulatory committee, as recommended by the U of I team. He said these efforts cement the community’s commitment to maintaining the infrastructure the community has helped put in place.
Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty member Fritz Fiedler, the founder and faculty advisor for HEC, has traveled to Bolivia seven times with students.
"The commitment students have demonstrated to the community of Carani is humbling,” he said. “The in-country work is very difficult – the altitude, climate, living conditions and a different diet make everything more challenging. Many non-traveling students, faculty and staff also have provided essential support to make this project a success."
Fritz said HEC’s next project may involve partnering with the Challcha, a community located about three to four hours from Sucre, Bolivia.
The 80-family community is located more than 9,000 feet above sea level and has only one small water source, which provides water to the community school. The local municipality has drilled a well, and HEC will be there to select and install a pump, and to design and install a water storage tank and distribution system for the community. The team hopes to make an initial assessment visit in summer 2020.
HEC welcomes U of I students from all majors to take part in international projects and travel opportunities. Members design the systems to be installed and participate in fundraising projects put on by students throughout the year.
The student organization hosts weekly meetings open to the public 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays in the Janssen Engineering Building thinkTANK Room 126. For more information, email current club president Criss Ward.