Engineers without Borders

About a month ago I had the opportunity to work on a project with an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) group from Columbia University.  It was, by far, the most fulfilling experience I’ve had so far working with the Peace Corps.  Columbia has a very successful chapter of EWB and their recent projects in Morocco have made the national EWB website front page, earned them a world record, and, most importantly, set them up for potential future success in a community that now knows and trusts their organization.

Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco have been involved in these projects since the beginning when a local volunteer suggested the project to her alma mater’s EWB program.  The initial idea turned into the world’s longest synthetic suspension bridge – all designed and built by undergraduate engineering students and facilitated in-country by PCVs.  This bridge connects two sides of a village over a large ravine that is entirely impassible after a large rain.  It allows students to attend school throughout the year and it has the potential to save lives by allowing continuous access to the clinic that only exists on one side of the river.

The bridge! While the hard work was already finished here, we did do a lot of maintenance work throughout the week.

The bridge! While the hard work was already finished here, we did do a lot of maintenance work throughout the week.

When I joined the project this winter, the bridge had already been completed.  My job, along with two other PCVs and the engineers, was to lay the groundwork for the next EWB Columbia and Peace Corps project in the area.  Our goal was to provide a nearby source of water for two villages near the bridge site.  These two villages have a water problem that is almost unimaginable for the average American (and also the average Moroccan).  Both villages get their water from a spring that surfaces next to the only river in the area.  One village is a 1.5 hour round trip walk from the source and the other is a full three hours!  To get enough water for their day (drinking, cooking, cleaning, animal care), some villagers have to make this trip up to 5 times per day.  For the furthest village, this means that they begin their trips to the spring in the early morning and don’t finish the work until after dark! This process is then repeated every single day throughout the summer.

The spring used by many surrounding villages.  This is a very important supply of water for many people in the area.

The spring used by many surrounding villages. This is a very important supply of water for many people in the area.

The week and a half of work involved many miles of hiking, dozens of conversations with local residents and village leaders (all in Moroccan Arabic of course), and countless tea breaks provided by the thankful locals.  Working with this group of Americans showed me how much I have learned since coming to Morocco – something that is often difficult to see in our day-to-day life.  It also gave me the confidence and energy to attempt new projects in Azilal.  While we didn’t yet dig a well or start laying pipe, the work we did was very important for the future success of the project – a project that I feel will truly change the lives of the local people for the better.  The engineers from Columbia plan to return this summer and again next winter and I hope to be able to join them again when they do.

-Matt

Working with a local who offered to help us take some important data for the project.

Working with a local who offered to help us take some important data for the project.

Translating the issues with the water supply was a huge part of the job for the PCVs.

Translating the issues with the water supply was a huge part of the job for the PCVs.

PCVs, engineers, and locals

PCVs, engineers, and locals