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Sunday, August 14, 2022

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The SDSU chapter of Engineering Without Borders helps a Honduran village access clean water.

Agua Para Siempre

The SDSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders helps a Honduran village access clean water.
By Eric Brown, class of '12

Even after a layover in Houston and a three-hour flight to San Pedro, Honduras, the journey had only just begun.

Before reaching their destination, the students of the Tejeras Clean Water Project faced nine hours of uneven dirt roads in a van packed with people, luggage and little fresh air.

Upon setting foot in the impoverished village of Tejeras, seven San Diego State University students and one student from City College found themselves 2,700 miles away from the comforts of home. The next 10 days were spent applying concepts from environmental engineering classes to assess the town’s poorly maintained water filtration and distribution system that was making residents sick.

Dirty water abounds

Most Tejerans live in adobe huts with no toilet or shower. Residents store water in pilas, outdoor concrete tubs where people bathe, wash dishes and, in some cases, drink. Residents change the water every couple of days from a tank one mile away and treat the pilas with chlorine tablets to keep the water clean.

It is an imperfect system. Many of Tejeras’ 600 residents suffer gastrointestinal problems, skin irritations and vaginal infections due to water pollution. Stagnant water attracts mosquitoes that carry dengue fever. Residents treat the illness with pills from a nearby convenience store, if they can afford them.

It’s not just a homework assignment that’s due tomorrow.
It’s someone’s life we’re in charge of;
it’s somebody’s resources.

The community’s water source is also polluted. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers from nearby farms seep into the Tejeras reservoir. Many residents bathe in the water. Dead animals float at its surface. Without repairs, the existing storage tank and disinfection systems cannot protect the community against pollutants.

“Access to water is such a basic human right,” said Kensey Daly, the student group’s project secretary. “It seems wrong that there are communities where people have to use unclean water, while we can just turn on a faucet.”

The winter break trip was the second for the group, a committee of students affiliated with San Diego State University’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

The organization aims to help struggling communities meet basic needs by designing and implementing sustainable engineering projects. In Tejeras, the students collaborate with residents to build a clean water solution the community can eventually maintain itself.

Long-term, student-funded project

The project began in January 2011, with seven students spending 10 days testing water quality and conducting community health surveys. Since then, the team has prepared blueprints for a new filtration system and investigated the relationship between the community’s water supply and its health problems.

Data from both trips will guide the implementation of a new system in January 2013.

“It’s not just a homework assignment that’s due tomorrow,” said Karina Guevara, the organization’s vice president. “It’s someone’s life we’re in charge of. It’s somebody’s resources.”

Still, residents — who contributed $600 to the project — questioned why the water system was taking so long to complete. It led to a heated discussion between students and about 40 residents who met for a community forum on the first day of the trip.

“Honduras is full of examples of humanitarian projects that are begun but never finished,” said Jorge Tercero, who oversees the project’s fundraising and design.

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Engineers Without Borders demonstrates the global impact of the university, a key initiative of The Campaign for SDSU. Whether it’s the university’s Fulbright scholars, its study abroad opportunities or the international research of its faculty members, SDSU reach out on an international level. Learn more about the global reach of SDSU and how you can contribute.

Students alleviated the town’s concerns by visiting residents in their homes and explaining the strict guidelines required by the national board of Engineers Without Borders to make sure the project is done properly, Guevara said.

Every Engineers Without Borders project must submit designs to the board multiple times for feedback and guidance. Additionally, students make at least four visits to the project site to conduct tests and monitor implementation.

The Tejeras Clean Water Project will cost $34,000 by the time it is completed. The SDSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders receives donations, grants and scholarships to fund its efforts, but students raise most of the money themselves.

Plans for the future

Trevor Shackelford, the project’s engineering lead, said the group will improve the filtration system so that leaves, dust and insects are removed before distribution. Rearranging rocks in the source river will ensure water flows into the system even during rainy months, when excess water diverts the river’s flow from the tank.

Additional storage will assure residents access to water in drier summer months. Finally, shock-treating the distribution system with chlorine will kill any bacteria lingering in the pipes.

The group will then teach residents how to maintain the new system and use it to solve the town’s long-term water problems, Guevara said. They plan to conduct workshops during their next visit, and will write reference manuals for community members.

They hope to inspire the community to work as a team to maintain the water system, rather than relying on one resident.

The students created coloring books to teach village children about proper water sanitation. The group gave the children soccer balls, water bottles, sunglasses and bracelets; and donated crayons and leftover materials to the school, where a single instructor teaches first through third grades.

The group spent the last day of their trip playing soccer and hanging out with the village’s children. Guevara said several of the youngsters sang hymns about improving their lives.

“We want to teach (the children) they don’t have to wait for a better life,” Guevara said. “We want to empower them to make it better now.”

To learn more about the SDSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, visit

Journalism graduate student Eric Brown, class of 2012, wrote this feature article.