Monday – April 21, 2014

 

Selfless Surveying

by David J. Langhoff, P.E., R.L.S., MATC civil engineering instructor

November 2009

Many Americans take access to clean water for granted. Whether we are using water to drink, clean, bathe, or transport waste from our houses, it is a very accessible commodity to almost all Americans. This is not the case everywhere, especially in remote parts of developing countries like Guatemala.

Many Americans take access to clean water for granted. Whether we are using water to drink, clean, bathe, or transport waste from our houses, it is a very accessible commodity to almost all Americans. This is not the case everywhere, especially in remote parts of developing countries like Guatemala.

In June 2009, Milwaukee Area Technical College student Gerard Guerra traveled to Central America where he worked on a project that would help build a water distribution pipeline for Quejchip (pronounced "KAY-chip"), a poor rural village in the highlands of Guatemala.

Guerra is currently enrolled in the Civil Engineering Technology program at MATC and expects to graduate in May 2010. His volunteer work was conducted to assist the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

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MATC civil engineering student Gerard Guerra surveying in the Guatemalan highlands.

Engineers Without Borders is a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life.

Situated in Central America, Guatemala shares borders with Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, and has coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Guatemala is approximately the same size as the state of Tennessee and is home to roughly 15 million people. Three-fourths of the population lives in poverty. The nation's economy is largely agrarian and its primary exports include coffee, sugar, and bananas. Guatemala has suffered through years of civil war and continues to struggle with widespread political violence and corruption.


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Gerard Guerra and UW-Milwaukee student
Carly Hasler in Quejchip, Guatemala.

The remote village of Quejchip is a community of about 360 people and has been lacking access to drinking water. Prior to this project, the existing fresh water supply had become contaminated and local people had to transport water by hiking to springs, a round trip requiring up to an hour.

The UWM engineering students designed a spring-fed water distribution system, including a concrete spring box to capture the water, conduction line, distribution tank, distribution system, and tap stands for 50 separate homes.

The survey work was done to lay PVC pipelines from a naturally occurring spring at the head of a mountainous valley to the village below. The overall length of the pipeline is about 10,000 feet. All trenching for the pipeline was accomplished by male villagers using just shovels and pick axes. These hard-working men cleared brush for the pipeline and even fashioned survey stakes with machetes.

The entire project cost $28,700 and the water is now distributed to most houses in the village. Funding for the project came from private donations and a variety of fundraising activities.

In addition to the construction activities, the students also educated villagers about ways to improve their general hygiene and the importance of washing their hands frequently.

Guerra is a Mexican-American student and speaks fluent Spanish, having been raised in a Spanish-speaking home in south Texas. It's interesting to hear him recall being admonished for speaking Spanish in elementary school, while these many years later, his bilingual ability was tremendously advantageous to the Engineers Without Borders group. Guerra felt a connection with the local people of Quejchip based on his ability to convey ideas and bridge the communication gap.

When reflecting on his first survey job, Guerra commented, "My first job was carrying a bucket." Eventually he advanced to chainman and instrument man while working in Texas. He expressed a liking for working outdoors, seeing different places, and the camaraderie of the people with whom he worked.

The Civil Engineering Program at UWM, like many four-year programs, includes just one course in surveying. This provided a collaborative opportunity between MATC and UWM in since Guerra's technical expertise and field experience, together with surveying equipment owned by MATC, could be utilized for the project.

"I would do it all over again," Guerra said when recalling his experience in Guatemala. The mission of Engineers Without Borders provides a unique opportunity for engineering students and afforded Guerra and other members of the team the opportunity to provide selfless assistance to a grateful community.

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Gerard Guerra and Quejchip villagers who helped bring clean water to their village via a new water distribution pipeline.


Details about MATC's civil engineering program are accessible at http://matc.edu/student/offerings/civengaas.cfm

For more information about UWM's Engineers Without Borders, e-mail ewb@uwm.edu or visit http://www4.uwm.edu/studentorg/ewb/

References
UWM Today, Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 1
Engineering Better Lives by Carol Pomeday, Ozaukee Press, July 16, 2009

This article first appeared in the September 2009 edition of Wisconsin Professional Surveyor magazine.