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Lehigh's Engineers Without Borders capture coveted prize



The Davis Projects for Peace prize recognized the work done by the Lehigh’s Engineers Without Borders members: (from left to right) Holly Canada '10, Natalie Smith'10, Nick Kastango '09, Tim Coull '08 '09G, Andrew Schweitzer '09.

Lehigh’s Engineers Without Borders was recently awarded a Davis Projects for Peace prize. The student club was one of 100 groups to receive $10,000 for their efforts to reduce conflict and suffering.

This is the third year that Davis Projects for Peace has funded projects run by students at American colleges. According to its Web site, the grants were established by Kathryn Wasserman Davis to motivate young people to implement their own ideas for creating a more peaceful world.

Nick Kastango ’09, the club’s fundraising chair, wrote the grant proposal, which explained how Lehigh’s branch of the national organization, Engineers Without Borders, is promoting peace in a small town in Honduras called Pueblo Nuevo.

For the last couple of years, Lehigh’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has been constructing a system to deliver purified water to Pueblo Nuevo. Until now, the town had a limited supply of unclean water, which has been estimated by the town doctor to cause 50 percent of the town’s illnesses.

Water-borne disease is hindering the town’s economic and cultural development, Kastango explains.

“Water is a basic human need and in order … to develop higher social structures, it helps if you’re not getting sick from drinking bad water all the time,” he says. Children are less likely to miss school, and the workforce can be more productive when they have access to clean water.

Lehigh’s EWB has visited Pueblo Nuevo four times and is planning two additional trips this summer. So far, they have built a water storage tank but need to connect the take to the distribution system that delivers water to each house.

The team expects the town to provide free labor, and in exchange, EWB designs the project and donates supplies. However, the Lehigh students discovered that the laborers they worked with were paid by the municipality, the political body one step above the town, which indicated that the town did not support the project. In order for the water system to last, it needs to be maintained by the townspeople through fundraising and labor, but without the town’s support, the water system would eventually fail. At that point, the team of mostly engineering majors recognized that they needed help.

“They weren’t really certain how decisions were made or how funding worked. They were looking for someone to come down and penetrate some of that mystery,” says Bruce Moon, professor of international relations.

When they returned to Honduras last winter, they traveled with Bruce Moon, several international relations majors and a few Spanish majors, who would act as translators. While the engineers focused on construction, the social scientists assessed Pueblo Nuevo’s social and political atmosphere.

“Bruce has convinced us that we are not doing infrastructure projects, we are doing development projects,” says Rick Weisman, professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-advisor for Lehigh’s EWB. The club’s other advisor is Kristen Jellison, the P.C. Rossin Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Moon discovered that the town was missing something he calls “social capital” as well as a water system. He defines social capital as the willingness of a community to work together towards a common goal. Moon and his students discovered that town was splintered into fractions based on political party, and those parties were selected based on patronage rather than ideals. Lehigh’s EWB students had unwittingly entered into an ongoing power struggle that sapped the town’s willingness to be involvement in the project.

Before Moon and his team of students departed Pueblo Nuevo, they gathered the townspeople and set up a junta de agua, or water board. The junta de agua would be made of people with various political affiliations and would hopefully bypass the quarrels and grudges that previously hindered the water project. The junta de agua is responsible for securing labor for the upcoming trip this May and for collecting money to maintain the water system.

Hopefully, by working together to maintain its water supply, the town will develop a greater sense of community, which may then be applied to other endeavors.

This too, is a way Lehigh’s EWB is promoting peace, Kastango says, as is their attempts to build relationships between Bethlehem middle school students and children in Honduras.
When the EWB team returns in May, they will carry with them albums full of photos taken by middle school students at Broughal Middle School. During their winter break visit, they handed cameras to children in Pueblo Nuevo and in Bethlehem, Pa., and told the students to take photos of their daily activities. The team then collected the photos into photo albums, electronic ones for the American students and physical albums for those in Honduras.

The photo exchange is based on “the idea that if you better understand how people from different cultures live and the way that they see the world then that promotes peace. It’s always easy to fight someone or be at disagreement when you don’t really understand how they are and how they see the world,” Kastango says.

In addition to the Davis Projects for Peace prize, Lehigh’s EWB received first prize from Lehigh’s 2009 Eureka! Social Venture Creation Competition for Student Entrepreneurs, finishing behind the grand prize winners, Lisa Boyd ’10 and Jason Kramer ’10 who created a non-governmental organization called HAWILI.

EWB was also awarded a P3 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency last year. The P3 grant (whose name stands for People, Prosperity and the Planet) is awarded to interdisciplinary student groups that are working on projects that promote sustainable development.

--Becky Straw


Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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