Chapter 151: My business trip to El Salvador


San Miguel volcano looking out over Santa Clara

During the first full week of January I was able to participate in an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) trip to El Salvador. The Santa Clara Potable Water Project was started years ago and has extensive community support, but securing funding proved a problem. Many of the original engineers involved in the design left before the implementation was started. I joined the EWB chapter just as they found funding through Rotary International and were in need of people with free time who could help implement an existing design.

Having essentially no practical construction or electrical engineering experience, I was quickly nominated the Electrical team lead and sent down to help kick start construction along with three professional engineers and three members of the George Washington University undergrad EWB chapter.

Santa Clara is a rural farming community of approximately 240 households, the overwhelming majority (~80%) of which do not have access to potable water and instead use hand-dug wells. The wells and the shallow aquifer they access are generally contaminated by nearby latrines, confirmed through the excessive levels of fecal coliform bacteria present in water samples.

The EWB project includes several interconnected systems that, once installed, will work together to provide clean, potable water to the community:

Water Source: An electrically powered pump and control system located at an existing deep well will pump chlorinated water to a 30,000 gallon storage tank built on the top of a hill.

Distribution System: A large water distribution system will pipe water out to each individual house, metered through the use of individual water meters.

Water Committee: A water committee will be organized that is made up of community members. The committee is responsible for collecting fees from each household to pay for repair, wages for water employees, the power costs of running the water system and continued public healthy promotion in the community.

Essentially, the goal is to build the infrastructure for a water utility, and then the community will staff and manage the utility, using any profits to invest back into the health promotion activities. Sounds simple, right? Our goals for the January trip were threefold: update and familiarize ourselves with the design, reconnect with the community, and hopefully actually start building things.


Our intrepid leader, Greg

Update Design

As none of us had been involved in the original design, we felt it was important to review all of the previous design decisions, and to go over our design with the local El Salvadoran engineers that would be involved with the actual construction. We ended up having to update the design to reflect what is more customary in terms of tank construction for the area. The soil samples that had been previously arranged for the tank site were not sufficient for the local engineer, so we arranged for another soil sample to take place while we were there. The soil ended up being of a much lower quality than anticipated, which required increasing the depth of our excavation and modifying the design of the tank foundation. We also relocated where the tank would be in the plot of land to accommodate the possible addition of another tank in the future.

Reconnect With Community Members

We participated in a large community meeting where members of the Water Committee were selected, as well as the work teams that would be involved with the extensive manual labor to dig both the tank site and the distribution network. Santa Clara is essentially a township of the municipality San Rafael Oriente, and we arranged a meeting with the mayor of San Rafael Oriente. The mayor committed to providing money to connect the power line to the pump site, as well as the continuing maintenance of the electrical connection.

Starting the Actual Implementation

Based on the soil sample, we used the organized community labor to start excavation of the tank site, as well as starting excavation of the pipeline that will run from the well to the tank. The excavation occurred several days after we had hoped, based on waiting for the updated soil samples to return. We also staked out the path that the well-to-tank pipeline would take. Due to the delay in getting the updated soil sample, the planned excavation of the tank site did not occur as soon as we had hoped, and were not able to start the actual tank construction.

All in all, it was the most functional I’ve ever felt as a volunteer for anything. I’m still very involved in the planning of the project, and hopefully we can get the entire thing functioning by the onset of rainy season (June). Below are a couple more pictures from the trip, and I hope to post another chapter or two about the experience.

“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi


The EWB travel team, hard at work

Community organizing the Water Committee

Excavation of the future tank site

San Salvador peeking out above the trees

One Reply to “Chapter 151: My business trip to El Salvador”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *