On Engineering and Water – AguaClara

One of the main reasons I choose to study at Cornell University was because of the variety of engineering clubs and project teams. I am currently participating in one of the project teams – Cornell University Sustainable Design, which utilizes and interdisciplinary approach to sustainability in order to construct resilient structures. However, I am also taking an Intro to Engineering class this semester called Introduction to Water Treatment Design, which is taught by Professor Monroe Weber-Shirk, who founded the quite popular project team AguaClara. AguaClara is made up of a variety of students, although the majority of them are from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and together they design sustainable municipal water treatment facilities which are then constructed by the organization Agua Para El Pueblo in Honduras.  The water treatment facilities are low-powered, functioning completely on the natural energy of gravity, and AguaClara’s unique open-source designs and implementation strategy has awarded them $50,000 recently at the first place at The Tech Awards.

But anyway, that’s enough introduction. Today in Intro to Water Treatment Design, a man named Antonio came to give us a talk. Antonio is from Honduras, and I think he works for APP. He travels to different Honduran villages in order to ask if the community would like to be an implementation site for AguaClara. He helps coordinate the goals of the community with AguaClara’s goals and oversees the construction and other logistics, at least I think that’s what he does (my Spanish was never very good, but I hope to improve it). But anyway, during his talk he discussed his work as well as Honduran culture in relation to water and engineering.

One of the main things that struck me was when Antonio said that Honduran Engineers are more theoretical, studying engineering concepts at school but rarely going out into communities to implement their learning. I thought this was interesting, seeing as Honduras is a country in need of many basic infrastructure improvements (like clean water) and Honduran Engineers would seem like the perfect people to help get that problem solved. Engineering is still considered a high honor in Honduras, but I still find it strange that there aren’t a lot of native engineers helping out (although, I could be wrong about this, and I’m not just talking about Honduras, but other countries as well). But apparently, it’s not such a big priority. I’ve come to realize that not all engineers are as passionate, or even informed as I am in regards to sustainability, even as today’s industries are moving past sustainability as a buzz word to sustainability as a necessary requirement. Sustainability doesn’t just include the technical aspects (as my time at CUSD has shown me) it also includes economic and social aspects, which in some regards, are far more messier and less attractive to engineers. Although Antonio also says that many Hondurans prefer work that has minimal contact with other people, and a stereotypical engineer seems like a good way to do that (Prof. Weber-Shirk once told our class, “How can you notice an extrovert engineer? When he walks down the hall he looks at the other person’s shoes”). I still think Engineering is a great way to go, it’s pretty academically intensive (especially those ChemE’s and BioE’s taking life sciences on top of math and physics, I respect you all) and there are plenty of opportunities to do a variety of things. But I still think it’s important for Engineers to have that social sustainability aspect, to understand the effects of technologies on cultures and environment, and also people. Compassionate Engineering is something that I think more engineers should consider.

Another things Antonio touched upon was the difficulties of convincing Honduran Villages to allow APP to build a water treatment facility in their village. Villagers believe that water should be free and comes from God, so consequently they would be skeptical of a getting water from a treatment plant and paying a water tariff to help maintain and fund the treatment plant. But this is a sensible line of reasoning, many villagers don’t trust government officials, and even Village Priests as Antonio told us, so it makes sense for villagers to stick with what they know and remain wary of outside influence. This is especially true of Non-governmental organizations, who have good intentions, but may not provide the most sustainable solutions which ultimately results in wasted dollars. It’s issues like these that also interest me, ethics regarding international intervention, when is it ok for other countries and organizations to step in to help, when should they not? Frankly, there are a lot of problems in the US, yet we have many NGO’s focused on international development, which is a noble cause as well. I’ve also thought about progression of society, and how right now, developed countries are the biggest contributors to conflict and pollution, and why is that? because they take for granted basic necessities such as clean water and reliable infrastructures (which makes it even harder to believe that soon, water will be one of the highest prized commodities in the world). What happens when you give a village clean, reliable water? Then children can go to school instead of walking miles to a river and ultimately get an education and improve their society, possibly even technologically, but there runs the danger of repeating the same mistakes that already developed countries have made by expanding too quickly and doing a lot of unforeseen harm (like countries in the East Pacific, with a growing population and rapidly expanding urban centers).  There’s a lot of risk when you give people new technologies, and in some cases, I wonder if it’s best that everyone just returned to low-tech societies, I’m sure a lot of people would disapprove, and understandably so, it’s just something I think about often. There must be some sort of balance between progress and sustainability, and hopefully the two will become one, but I don’t know, I could write a whole other essay on what I think about the progression of humanity and civilization/society, but that’s for another day.

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