Converses and Toasters

If I have learned anything during the two weeks that I was in Honduras, it would probably be that “we live in an extremely complicated world.” I know it seems like an obvious truth, one that seems almost defeatist, as if I’ve absolved myself of any guilt I’ve felt due to laziness by accepting the fact that some things are far too complicated to comprehend or tackle. But really, if anything, it’s the constant reminder of this truth whenever I am thrown out of my comfort zone that fuels my desire to try to do the seemingly impossible. After all, where else can one accomplish the seemingly impossible but in a complicated world, where even the simplest of actions influence, and are influenced by, countless other simple actions?

I set out with a group of 20 some students early in the New Year, our destination: Honduras. This past fall semester, I participated in a project team/class called AguaClara. AguaClara – in short – designs sustainable municipal-scale, gravity-powered (no electricity!) water treatment systems. These designs are translated into actual plant designs by the engineers at Agua Para El Pueblo (APP), a non-profit based in Honduras, and are eventually constructed in villages and towns around the country. I could go into detail about the inner workings of AguaClara, its goals and philosophies as influenced by Professor Monroe Weber-Shirk, and the innovative AguaClara technology, but I want to focus on the trip itself. If you want to learn more about the AguaClara project, you can check out its website.

Because of my participation in the project team, I was allowed to travel on AguaClara’s annual trip to Honduras, where we would visit the water plants that we had designed in order to learn what was working well, and what wasn’t. It’s important to note that this trip was not a volunteer-work trip (AguaClara only designs the plants, students do not assist in the construction of plants), we weren’t there to build the plants or do any construction work, we were there to observe, learn, and test out any new technologies that we had brought with us. We traveled to various towns in Honduras, some with AguaClara plants, and some with conventional plants, in order to compare and contrast our technologies with the current paradigm. We talked to plant operators, water boards (a non-governmental group of popularly elected citizens that managed the village’s water supply and water tariffs), and mayors about the water treatment plants in their villages. AguaClara has been running for around 7 years, and over that time, our organization has built firm relationships with our partner APP, as well as the villages with AguaClara plants. We visited villages in various stages of receiving an AguaClara plant and listened to the water boards as they described the difficulties in raising funds for the plants, to APP engineers as the described the difficulties in constructing the plants, and to Antonio, who worked on behalf of APP to make sure that each village was socially prepared to support and manage an AguaClara plant, thus ensuring the sustainability of each project. It was a lot of listening, but we also asked questions in order to get a better understanding of the process, in order to realize that even though the majority of us were engineers, the problem of clean water was far greater than just a technical one, it was more of a social, economic, and political one.

Admittedly, it is frustrating for me as an engineer to come to terms that our technical innovations are only the tip of the iceberg when tackling the world’s greatest issues. So much of it depends on the ‘human-side,’ the nitty-gritty of politics, of money, of society. It’s a side that engineers typically stray from (after all, we’re more logical and mathematical, we like our numbers and quantitative data), but one that has a greater influence on life. This trip has exposed me to the nitty-gritty of water quality. I’ve learned of villagers reluctant to pay increased water tariffs for cleaner water, I’ve learned of organizations who build water treatment plants but fail to follow up on their maintenance or communicate with the operators, of municipal officials who are reluctant to tackle the tough problems (and who can blame them?), and of the people who try to help, and perhaps end up doing more harm than good. This trip hasn’t just exposed me to the complications surrounding water quality, it’s also exposed me to the complication surrounding the new paradigm in our society – that of Sustainability.

Sustainability, it’s a word often used, often defined, but rarely understood. Once again, I could talk about the many definitions out in the world, but I just want to bring up the questions that I’ve come up with during my time in Honduras.  In Sustainability, there is a wide acceptance that all sustainable solutions must address the economic, social and environmental aspects of the issue. I have come to realize that we have the technology to tackle may of today’s problems, the issue is trying to assimilate this technology into our society, to make it readily accessible, affordable and simple enough to understand. That, I believe is our main goal as Engineers. We aren’t here to just come up with the latest technologies, we’re here to make them a reality. Not a reality in the strictly physical sense, but a reality by creating a tangible opportunity. Something that someone can touch, and by touching it, have access to opportunities they once did not have.

The acceptance of the large influence of the non-technological side of life is what leads us to the complication of the world. There are billions of people on this planet, each living a separate life, influenced by various events and environments. And each of these people influence each other, thereby creating a vast, unpredictable network of interactions, many of which are beyond our control. It is in this world where we must tackle the hardest problems, and a cynic will be quick to utilize this fact as a reason that we will never solve these problems. But it is this reason, as I said before, that make it possible for the impossible to be possible. Where the very act of trying can make something possible.

Then there is the question of scale. How big can a project, such as AguaClara, be and still maintain sustainable projects. Currently, AguaClara has 8 plants scattered across Honduras, and not all of them are successes. Yet each one requires the constant visit by Antonio and AguaClara engineers to ensure its functionality. It would be difficult to accomplish this task on a larger scale. So the question is, when can a sustainable project be too large to become sustainable?

In the realm of water quality, there are numerous profit and non-profit organizations that are tackling this issue, many have similar goals and philosophies, and some even have similar technologies. How can an organization like AguaClara/APP stand out from among the crowd? How can it distinguish itself to be the accepted technology? And once it does, how does it ensure its continual sustainable practices as it grows (once again, addressing the issue of scale)?

Then there are also the ethical issues of international development. When should an outside force assist, and to what ends? What responsibly does the technical provider have to the client? How do you ensure sustainability within international development? How much should you give and how much should be given?

These are all questions that have arisen in my mind, and I am sure, in the minds of many others. They are questions that I don’t know the answers too, and perhaps we never will. But another conclusion I made from the trip follows directly from the first one I mentioned: “You will never know everything, but that shouldn’t stop you from moving forward.” If we had to be fully informed of a situation before making a decision, we would get nothing done. Yes, we try our best to see both sides of the issue, to understand, to empathize, but the truth is there is always more truth out there. We will never know everything to make the “right” decision, we can only decide when to make the decision. We have to figure out when we have ‘enough’ knowledge to move forward, and to take that step, knowing full well that in the future we may have to address our mistakes. I know it’s a scary thought to try to tackle an issue without knowing the exact outcome, but global issues are global for that very reason, they have unknown outcomes and influences. There are always things beyond our control, but that should not scare us, it should energize us, inspire us. It is the uncontrollable that influences our lives, and it is when and what our decision is that determines whether the uncontrollable is the best or worst part of our lives.

“All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.” – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

2 thoughts on “Converses and Toasters

  1. Thanks for this really reflective and honest piece. I agree with you: devising the most complex and ingenious technology proves to be the easy part. Trying to integrate it in a real world situation with political, cultural, and ethical considerations are the harder challenges. So many questions, no easy answers.

    I think there’s a balance one has to navigate between action and reflection. Too much introspection and nothing gets done; potential is squandered. Too much doing without forethought, and dramatic unintended consequences can occur. It’s something I constantly struggle with myself.

  2. Agreed. The world is indeed complex. It is full of duality and yet it is not black and white. We might not understand everything about it. We might not be able to control it. And while this journey into the unknown may be the path off a cliff, by golly it is still a journey worth taking. For we all end up in the ground at the end. And at the end of the day, it is not where in the ground we end up but how we get there that defines us.

    I am so glad you had a wonderful trip!

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