Careers: Engineering a cause

Aug. 7, 2008
When Benjamin Mapes helped start the Denver chapter of Engineers Without Borders–USA, he thought he’d help a small village build a shower for the schoolhouse. Instead, the project bloomed into getting potable water to the whole community.

By Victoria Burt

EWB-USA (, a member of the Engineers Without Borders international network, is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that partners with developing communities worldwide to improve quality of life. Projects range from construction of sustainable systems that developing communities can own and operate without external assistance, to enhancing local, technical, managerial, and entrepreneurial skills. These projects are initiated by, and completed with, contributions from the host community working with EWB-USA project teams.

Mapes is a team member for the chapter’s project in Malingua Pamba, Ecuador. The project started in 2006 when a retired school teacher in Boulder contacted the group with the idea of building a shower in the community’s school house. Malingua Pamba is a rural mountain community of roughly 600 to 800 people, and the lack of facilities kept them from attracting and retaining teachers.

“EWB-USA projects usually begin with an assessment visit to establish connections with the locals, and appraise the situation,” says Mapes. “We went down there thinking we needed to build a shower and found out that hundreds of people and dozens of homes had no clean water at all. The school cook would get water from a mud puddle then boil it to prepare lunch. The community was dissolving because crops were also failing,” he adds.

The Denver group split the project into two parts: a potable-water system, and an irrigation system. They focused on the potable-water system first. “The town had a crude system in place that was poorly designed and broken. Underground plastic pipes ran from the mountain springs but were buried in shallow plots, and often disturbed by local farmers, causing leaking and contamination,” says Mapes.

To solve the problem, the group built tanks at the water’s source to protect from contamination and prevent clogs. “Previous lines tended to have low points where sediment collected, or high points where air would collect. And because of the height differences there were also large pressures,” adds Mapes. So the group mapped the terrain to find the best route for new diverted water lines, and created additional tanks to serve as pressure breaks and points of distribution for multiple lines.

Mapes says one of the more interesting parts of the project was the way EWB-USA engineers built the tanks. On their last trip in April, the EWBUSA group and locals built tanks from reusable concrete forms. “One of our chapter members designed the system with a company in Denver that makes reusable forms, and a charitable group called Airline Ambassadors helped us transport over 50 boxes down there,” Mapes says.

When the group got to Ecuador they figured out how to make the first tank, then trained a group of locals called the Maestros. “They essentially built the second tank themselves,” adds Mapes. The reusable forms can be used 100 to 150 times, so now the Maestros can build tanks when EWB-USA is not there. “We worked with these newly trained ‘water experts’ on how to prioritize where the tanks should be built.” Mapes hopes the trained locals can help other villages in the surrounding area with the same problems, whether they actually make money or barter services.

The EWB-USA group also involved local kids in the ongoing project. Children learned how to set up and read rain gages and keep the measurements in notebooks. “We built a flume at one of the primary springs for the potable- water system and the kids read and record the water levels. The data gets back to us via a 10-mile walk to a hostel, where the data gets e-mailed to us,” Mapes says. “We have 12 months of spring data and they are still recording.”

As a member of the team, Mapes says he ends up doing a lot of paperwork, accounting, and logistics, and adds that volunteers needn’t be engineers to help out. “The primary goal of EWB-USA is to improve the quality of life wherever we work, so we need people with experience in health care, fundraising, and even international politics,” he notes.

The Denver chapter has made four trips to Ecuador so far with a fifth in the works. About six to eight EWB-USA members, a couple of translators, the retired teacher with the initial idea, and one or two other volunteers make the journey. On their next trip the chapter plans to start work on the irrigation problem. They are figuring out the water demand for crops, the changes of seasons, and how much land needs irrigation. “We know the water source and how much is available. We now need to look at whether supply can meet demand,” says Mapes.

Where to Go?

Engineers Without Borders-USA partners with worldwide communities to improve quality of life. The group creates and builds sustainable projects, such as a potable-water system built in Ecuador by the Denver chapter. To find out about chapters in your area, visit, for more information.

Benjamin Mapes stands in front of a concrete tank built by residents of Malingua Pamba, Ecuador, and members of the Denver chapter of EWB-USA.

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