Engineers don’t often get a chance to develop the cultural awareness inherent to anthropology majors, said Elizabeth Velazquez, a Northwestern senior majoring in Environmental Engineering.
But Velazquez gained that knowledge during a six-week trip to Chile last summer, where she worked on developing sustainable water solutions for a small Chilean town as part of Project Thirst, a project organized by Northwestern’s student group Engineers for a Sustainable World.
Velazquez said that as an environmental engineer, sustainable water projects had always interested her. “I always wanted to be that person who helped get clean water to people who needed it the most,” she said.
A Spanish speaker who had previously traveled to Ecuador, Velazquez jumped at the idea of being able to put as many of her skills as possible to use while working in Chile during the summer of 2012. For six weeks, she and three others took on the challenge of figuring out a way to provide clean water to the community in Molinos, Chile, a desert in the northern part of the country with such little rainfall that it is known as one of the driest places on earth.
The main water source, explained Velazquez, is a river that is highly contaminated with high concentrations of arsenic and boron, the former, which comes from neighboring Peru, and the latter from mining activity in the area.
“There is a high amount of arsenic compared to WHO standards, but not enough where it’s a human health hazard,” said Velazquez. Despite this, the poor water quality still has an extremely negative impact on the community’s health, because agriculture is the main source of living. “You can tell the whole village is being affected,” said Velazquez. “The boron really limits their crop flow, destroys plants, can only grow particular types of tomatoes and alfalfa.”
This limited crop flow is what brought Velazquez and her classmates from Evanston to Chile. In Evanston, the team had tested an optimized solar distiller, which produced up to two to three liters of clean, potable water per day. But upon arrival in their host country, the output was not as efficient as the team had hoped and trickled to one liter every three days.
A concern for the team was meeting the expectations of the community, who had seen many foreigners come and go without being able to find a sustainable solution to their water problem. For Velazquez, this was one of the most enriching experiences of the trip. Developing a new water delivery system meant communicating with members of the community to make sure that they were meeting their needs in the way that would best suit the farmers and residents of the northern Chilean town.
Listening to the needs of the community is something you “only learn when you are dong it,” said Velazquez. “You don’t really think about it when you’re taking classes at Northwestern because you’re not really exposed to it. It’s difficult, especially for engineers, to create a particular project and come down.”
The work of Engineers for a Sustainable World gives engineers an opportunity to do just that and show communities that they are committed to finding a solution. Velazquez said that the team is developing a new way to generate water in the arid region through fog collection methods, and that Engineers for a Sustainable World will continue to partner with the community in northern Chile.