UConn EWB: Recon in Nicaragua

Four members of the UConn chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) traveled to Nicaragua this summer to lay the groundwork for a roadway reconstruction project aimed at providing a vital link between an impoverished shantytown and the colonial city of Granada.

The young UConn chapter, now headed by president Ethan Butler (chemical engineering), identified the rural village of La Prusia, Nicaragua several years ago as a site in urgent need of assistance. The chapter has set its sights on making permanent repairs to a roughly two-mile stretch of a dirt road that is chronically washed out by torrential rains, which often produce deep crevices and render it impassable to motorized traffic.

Making the trip this summer were Butler and his fellow EWB members, civil engineering majors Jorge Simbaqueba and Aaron Aguirre-Castillo, and environmental engineering/natural resources engineering major Winnie Qiu, plus EWB Project Mentor Gerry Hardisty of Civil Engineering Services, LLC. The team partnered with students from West Point Military Academy who were considering starting an EWB chapter and made the trip along with their advisor, Major Schreiner.

Arriving in Nicaragua in late July, the students wasted no time. Their first night, the team met with various local governmental officials as well as representatives from the non-governmental, multi-national organization Casas de la Esperanza, which has been working in La Prusia since 2006 building homes, providing education and assisting the community. The organization has collaborated with the UConn EWB chapter since 2008. Cautioning the EWB team to respect the endemic traditions rather than infuse the task with modern Western technologies and materials, NGO leaders urged the students to embrace locally available construction materials and labor, as well as traditional design methods employed in the area.

The next day, they walked the unpaved road from Granada to La Prusia to begin their first full day on location. Butler commented that the two locales, so close, could hardly be more different. The economic disparity was particularly jarring for the U.S. group, with La Prusia’s structures being little more than slats of tree trunks for walls, crowned by corrugated metal roofs, with plastic bags and other found materials used to plug holes.

The dirt road, noted Butler, is heavily eroded in many places, making vehicular traffic all but impossible. Though La Prusia is less than two miles from the historic town, the unusable condition of the road hampers villagers from going into the city for employment, healthcare and education. Trash, animal waste and human refuse are common sights alongside the road, a testament to poverty and underdevelopment.

Over the next 12 days, the UConn/West Point EWB members worked seamlessly, ticking off all of their planned tasks. First, they conducted a detailed topographic survey of a 1.8 kilometer section of the road, collecting data that will be fed into a CAD program back in Storrs. The team also collected on-the-ground data for watershed analyses, to be combined with satellite data of water resources in the region. The brand new, top-of-the-line equipment – recently purchased under the Provost’s educational enhancement initiative – was provided by the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at UConn.

A vital part of the team’s efforts involved meeting with the key stakeholders, most notably La Prusia’s residents. The students went door to door surveying approximately 25% of the local residents. Before leaving for Nicaragua, the team worked with Political Science assistant professor, Matthew Singer, and graduate student Yazmin Garcia Trejo, to develop meaningful survey questions intended to accurately assess residents’ needs for the road. Butler said the survey results underlined residents’ earnest need for a reliable roadway that would link the poor community to the relative metropolis of Granada, providing access to jobs, much-needed supplies, schools, medical facilities and economic advancement.

The group also met with Granada’s mayor, lead city engineer and city council members, who affirmed their commitment to the road construction project and presented the group with the results of recent socioeconomic studies they had conducted. Butler said the city recognizes that La Prusia’s poverty and isolation lead to social ills that spill over into the city, so city officials acknowledge the need to connect the community with the city and are willing to aid the effort. In Managua, the EWB group also met with U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Robert J. Callahan and individuals from the U.S. Department of Defense who collaborate closely with the Nicaraguan military to reduce drug trafficking through the region.

During their visit, the students learned that standard road building methods in the region involve basically three steps. First, a foundation is applied atop the dirt, made from an aggregate containing soil and volcanic rock. Along the margins, roadways are buttressed up and stabilized by quarried stones fitted together. Brick pavers are laid atop the aggregate foundation. Butler said road construction is expensive, mostly due to the high cost of materials and fuel to run the heavy construction equipment.

The group’s plan, to design and support construction of a relatively modest length of road, will take about five years and approximately $30,000 annually (including construction materials, energy and labor, plus travel costs for the EWB contingent), according to Butler. This trip was funded by a generous donation by GEI Consultants, Inc., a geotechnical, water resources, environmental and ecological consulting firm. Working hard to conserve the organization’s cache of funds, Butler said the team spent only half of the money budgeted for the trip and contributed the remainder from their own personal reserves.

Donations are sorely needed to help finance the group’s continued activities. Granada officials and the NGO have committed to match any funds raised by EWB for the project. Among the fundraising events the students plan are a 5k race to be held during the University’s family weekend in October.

The group also seeks a broader membership, Butler said. Problems like the one in La Prusia are not merely engineering challenges. Rather, they are complex socioeconomic and cultural challenges as well, so the UConn EWB group hopes to expand its membership with non-engineers. English and journalism majors, for example, might contribute their expertise in drafting white papers and grant proposals; sociology majors would find interest in the socioeconomic aspects of engineering change in developing regions; and business majors might contribute ideas for sustainable investment and entrepreneurship. In addition, chapter co-advisor and CEE Department Head Amvrossios Bagtzoglou remarked that a plethora of senior design projects are certain to be formulated based on the data collected during this trip.

To learn more about the chapter’s activities, visit the UConn EWB website at http://ewb.engr.uconn.edu/ or contact Ethan Butler at ethan.butler@huskymail.uconn.edu.

Published: September 3, 2010