Building community

Nevadans travel to underdeveloped areas to perform free work

Steve Anderson shows a photo of Juerana, Brazil. In the photo his team is at the village doing preliminary research.

Steve Anderson shows a photo of Juerana, Brazil. In the photo his team is at the village doing preliminary research.

Photo By David Robert

“Nobody’s throwing money at us,” says 25-year-old Steven Anderson.

He’s describing the tribulations facing a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders, a group whose members travel the world helping to build and rebuild in underdeveloped places. Last August, the UNR student chapter of Engineers Without Borders launched its own effort.

Anderson has degrees in both economics and mechanical engineering and a full-time job at Reno’s TEC Civil Engineering Consultants. He is part of a team of five engineers, led by UNR engineering professor Dr. Keith Dennett, who traveled to Juerana, a village on the island of Itaparica in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Its work in this distant South American land is the catalyst for northern Nevada’s EWB to personify another popular expression: Think globally, act locally.

“There’s been attempts in Reno to create a professional chapter—it just hasn’t happened,” explains Anderson. He says Reno geotechnical engineer John Thornley “is like the father of this chapter. He’s been all over the place, and is a civil-engineering student at UNR. About a year ago, he said he wanted to create an Engineers Without Borders student chapter, so we went through all the wrangling with UNR and EWB, and got approved. Since then, he’s been trying to get people interested.”

Engineers Without Borders’ international work is facilitated through proposals, and just like its endeavors, the process knows no boundaries, with submissions coming in from all over the world. For the trek, the UNR chapter secured translators who speak Portuguese—Juerana’s chief language—and, on a wing and a prayer, set out to effect change.

“We knew a few things about the community. The assessment, we knew, was going to be an environmental assessment. But they didn’t have toilets [or] any kind of sewer system, and were really unspecified in terms of power, running water, things like that. We really didn’t know much; we knew where it was located, and that we’d have a place to stay on the island when we got there. That was pretty much it.”

Anderson arrived three days behind the rest of the crew, and they realized that within the whole set of logistics necessary to execute the work, was another set of logistics.

“I didn’t know the set up, I had no clue,” he says now. “I think it was a little bit of a surprise when [the crew] got there; the facilities, how we were getting to the village and all that. That was the whole idea of the trip—to figure things out and learn about this community. It was a typical site assessment.”

The essential need for availability of clean water is vital for any community—agrarian or otherwise. Without it, says Anderson, it’s a metaphoric swim upstream for life.

“Juerana did have some running water from a water facility. In a lot of cases, though, families aren’t able to pay. … We witnessed, on one occasion, where the water company came and shut the water off in the community, and they had no more running water. There’s no [public works] standards, really, in these villages, and the water pipes were maybe an inch in diameter and they were plastic. They were broke, and you just don’t call up the water company to come fix it. We saw guys going out there and doing it themselves. The groundwater table’s two feet, three feet, so they just dig a hole and pull their water. That’s what they wash, drink, cook with. I drank the well water. My philosophy was, ‘Screw it. They’re drinking it. They’re alive. So what?’ There was no huge organic [or] arsenic problem; so while the water didn’t taste particularly great, it got the job done.”

While the chapter’s work is bound by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Code of Ethics, such standards simply aren’t part of the equation in some places where EWB volunteers.

“In a lot of third-world countries, building codes don’t really exist,” Anderson observes. “It’s build what you can build, and hopefully it stays up. You don’t see Bahian officials going around red-tagging people because they’re building without a permit. Some people build straw and mud huts. We’d go in and build to typical Nevada standards. Ethics apply to any project. In our case, the client is impoverished people. It’s not some rich old man.”

The Reno chapter’s work in Juerana included surveying, conducting water and soil tests, meetings with the health department and—lest they offend villagers—dancing.

“The whole idea is that you kind of adopt a village. We [did], and when we went there, they addressed other needs: a children’s center, more running water, paved streets. What we were down there for was an environmental sewage facility. We assessed [their needs] in a census way—health, children, mortality rates, the whole gamut—and then we determined who needed it most, and how we could begin the project. Hopefully, five years down the road, we can go in and pave streets. Another major goal is to bring them back, give them more of a sense of pride. These people aren’t going to leave their village. There’s not this whole American doctrine of moving on to a better place. This is where they live.”

Engineers Without Borders’ work is done for free. Anderson calls the organization’s fund-raising efforts “difficult at best,” adding that there’s no fund-raising at the national chapter, and that professional engineers pay annual membership fees.

“The [student government]—since we’re now affiliated with the University of Nevada—[does] give us money for fund-raising events. We’ll pitch ideas to the Lions Club, the builder’s association. We do a lot of presentations [and] grassroots-level learning. We’re trying to expose people to it. We have a poker night, bake sales, car washes.”

Visualize engineers with oven mitts, and world peace really isn’t that much of a stretch. Persuading Americans to get behind its international causes, though, is often EWB’s biggest challenge.

“It’s very difficult to get people involved and want to be part of this, because [they] are not subscribing to the idea of helping a community 5,000 miles away, [or] put money toward that. You can subscribe to this Republican, neo-conservative idea of spreading the goodness of America—or you can contribute to the idea that you’re helping civil engineers in our community, seeing a start-to-finish project and the effects of improved public works in a community, and how it affects them. You’re not just helping out people thousands of miles away, and you’ll never see the results. You’ll see the results in the future, of retaining civil engineers in this community, and … how they’ve drawn upon those experiences for future public-works projects in Reno. People have to realize it’s one community helping another community.”