By Capt. Michael A. Stover, P.E., R.S., USPHS

Water for Life

A U.S. Public Health Service engineer traveled to El Salvador and served as professional lead, designer and technical mentor for a project to provide safe drinking water to the small community of Santa Clara.
By Capt. Michael A. Stover, P.E., R.S., USPHS

Construction of the water tank.Photo by Sean Cox, Peace Corps

Santa Clara, El Salvador is a small rural community in the southeastern part of the country, whose inhabitants have historically experienced a high mortality rate associated with contaminated drinking water. To address this issue, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) partnered with other organizations to provide a potable drinking water system for the community.

Santa Clara is located within the municipality of San Rafael Oriente. This canton of 3,165 inhabitants is surrounded by numerous volcanoes and lush rain forest terrain. Since time immemorial, the indigenous population had relied on local rivers, streams and a handful of shallow, hand-dug contaminated for its drinking water, often contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria. As a result, the community had experienced a high rate of morbidity and mortality associated with water-borne pathogens and related illnesses. Additionally, the people of Santa Clara suffer many hardships. The majority live in substandard housing and sanitary conditions, without electricity, adequate roads or landline telephone service.

Difficulty in accessing potable water is a widespread problem throughout El Salvador, particularly in rural areas. Throughout the Central American region, the country ranks lowest in providing access to safe, potable drinking water for its inhabitants.

 

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Santa Clara had been in active pursuit of a way to provide potable water to its residents for years. The community sought to provide safe, potable water for 240 households through a distribution system that would be piped into each household. It gained access to a well drilled previously by a Japanese non-governmental organization (NGO) that was never developed and had no access to a power source. In April 2006, through communication with a George Washington University (GWU) professor who had ties to the community, Santa Clara submitted an application to EWB for assistance, and a partnership was formed between GWU and the Engineer Without Borders - Washington DC Professional Chapter (EWB-DC) to address this public health need.


A local resident hauls water from a nearby river.Photo by Elizabeth Andrade, GWU

Through the GWU-EWB partnership, a team of engineers and public health experts began to explore the project, evaluate the site, and initiate the process of planning meetings with the community to determine the scope of the desired water system, the resources available, and the means to construct the facilities and establish a utility organization within the community.

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

The Santa Clara community members played a central role from the initial stages of community assessment to the formation of an implementation plan, to strategic planning, decision-making and sustainability assurance measures. This community-driven approach ensured a sense of local ownership, and equitable, people-centered service delivery. The success of the project relied upon the fundamental understanding that the project was at all times under the leadership and direction of the community, and that the community would provide what it could to construct the water system.

Through the establishment of a water system committee and with assistance from EWB, the community developed and ratified a sustainable, sound business plan accompanied by codes and ordinances, and agreed to operate and maintain the resultant water system after being trained by EWB engineers and local governmental assistance organizations. The water committee was charged with collecting fees from each household to pay for repair, wages and power costs of running the water system, as well as paying for continued public health promotion in the community.

Due to local economics, the community did not have any funding to contribute to the project—but it did have a labor force that was ready and willing to assist in the construction of the water facilities. The community pledged to contribute its own community labor to build the water system infrastructure.


Residents of Santa Clara install water main.Photo by Sean Cox, Peace Corps

Over the next few years, after a number of trips to Santa Clara, and in conjunction with the established Santa Clara community water committee, engineers from the EWB-DC professional chapter developed the design for a new community water system, matching the level of operator expertise in the community with a technologically-appropriate design for the pump and control system. Local resources were identified for the construction materials for the system, including a local brick manufacturing source and sand and gravel from the local riverbed. The final design that was developed by EWB and accepted by the community consisted of a submersible well pump to be installed in the previously drilled steel-cased and screened well that the community acquired, a pump house to provide chlorination and pump controls, a water supply main to a community-constructed water storage reservoir, and a distribution system to the community residents, including metered services.

Concurrent with the design of the well pump project was a fundraising effort that resulted in individual donations as well as a partnership with the Rotary Club of Glen-Burnie, Md. Through the collective fundraising efforts, funding for the construction materials—including brick, rebar, cement, piping, pump and controls—was secured. Additionally a power extension to the well site was funded with assistance from the mayor of the neighboring municipality of San Rafael, El Salvador. A relationship was formed with Peace Corps volunteers who were assigned in the canton and who provided logistical and communication support as well as construction oversight. Community members who desired to belong to the new water system were required to provide a number of hours of sweat labor each week during the construction to be eligible to receive community water.

Construction began in earnest in 2008, with a local labor force laying pipe, followed by construction of the tank foundation and brick and mortar floor, walls and ceiling. Work finished with the construction of the pump house and pump installation. Oxen and cart were used to transport materials, cement and water to the job site. The structure foundations and pipe trenches were excavated by hand using picks, shovels and wheel barrels.

PERSONAL CONNECTION

I became aware of the project in 2008 through a conversation with a fellow alumnus from Cornell University, who established the Washington DC professional chapter of EWB, and who became involved with the project since its inception. Since joining the chapter, I lent my experience with pumps, controls and hydraulics towards the project. I became a technical lead for these project components and also served as technical mentor to other engineers involved in the project.

My 18 years of U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) experience with the Indian Health Service, serving in various roles as field engineer, design engineer, engineer consultant and district engineer, and in rural Indian communities throughout New England, New York, Alaska, Michigan, California and Arizona, provided me with the necessary expertise for the Santa Clara water project. The Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program is charged with designing and constructing water, wastewater and solid waste on reservations throughout the nation, and provides its USPHS engineers with an array of engineering challenges in an arena of challenging geographical, sociological and climactic landscapes.


Capt. Michael Stover, USPHS, (right) discusses design notes with engineering team. Photo by Angeline Cione, EWB-DC

The Santa Clara community water system, with the focus on sustainability, leveraging of funding and resources, community involvement, and appropriate level of complexity commensurate with operator expertise, was extraordinarily similar to tribal projects that I designed and constructed as an engineer with the Indian Health Service. It required, perhaps most importantly, the need for an established, sustainable operation and maintenance organization coupled with a comprehensive business plan.

While participating in the Santa Clara project as an EWB volunteer, completing the system design on my own time, and taking annual leave for three implementation trips to El Salvador, I considered this experience an opportunity to hone my own engineering and leadership skills, engage in communication in a Spanish-speaking community, and promote among the EWB engineering community the opportunities for USPHS engineers to serve the country in numerous capacities through various agencies and organizations.

The project culminated with a community celebration and blessing of the new water system in May 2012, complete with traditional song, dance and food. For the first time, the residents of Santa Clara have access to safe, sanitary drinking water. I am still involved with the Santa Clara project, by providing technical assistance with the optimization of the system operation. Now stationed in Boston, Mass., with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the New England Indian Program Manager, I have become involved with a Boston EWB Professional Chapter community water project in Honduras, now in its infancy stages.

Through the collaboration of a determined community and a partnership of professional engineers, university proponents, and philanthropic benefactors, the health of the Santa Clara community will forever be improved. And the risk of mortality from waterborne illness within the community, especially childhood mortality, will be curbed significantly. The project truly was, water for life.


Capt. Michael A. Stover, P.E., R.S., USPHS, is New England Indian Program Manager, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; 617-918-1123, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..