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Sasha Minjarez | October 25, 2022

Civil Engineering Students Return to Colombia to Study Water Access

Civil Engineering Students Return to Colombia to Study Water Access


The Department of Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in collaboration with Universidad Santo Tomás Villavicencio in Colombia are part of The Colombia-U.S. Transdisciplinary Study Abroad Program for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene in the Orinoquía Region better known as O-WASH. This collaboration aims to improve sanitary facilities in vulnerable communities in the Orinoquía region. Led by USTA’s Christian Rojas Reina, Ph.D., and Professor Jorge Romero, in conjunction with UTEP’s Ivonne Santiago, Ph.D., O-WASH allow students and faculty from the U.S. to travel to Colombia to learn from one of the most biodiverse regions in South America and to collaborate with vulnerable communities to help implement new techniques through state-of-the-art equipment in the field of water sanitation. O-WASH funded by the U.S. Department of State's 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund provides student support, while the Vatican will support the construction of the water treatment system.

O-WASH is part of the Civil Engineering Department’s initiative to advance the field of Peace Engineering through service-learning projects benefitting underserved communities. This partnership is meant to provide infrastructure solutions to communities in distress due to environmental inequalities, poverty, famine, or violence. In the past, the Orinoquía region of Colombia was isolated due to 50 years of armed conflict. Today, the pacified zone brings opportunities to address facility deficits for indigenous populations.

"Colombia’s current social and environmental problems calls for immersion exercises in the field. Students and faculty were able to experience and collect ideas with the local community in this indigenous territory; Being directly exposed to existing community difficulties, students were able to develop resources to improve access to safe water,” Romero said.

The O-WASH project focused on resolving the inadequacy in drinking water systems and human waste disposal for the Piapoco community, or “resguardo,” as commonly known in the native reserve of La Victoria near Puerto Gaitán. The community currently has a well on one end with no treatment in proximity, including a tank that is structurally unsafe due to inaccessibility. Cooperative efforts between USTA and UTEP posed possible technical solutions to the issue by presenting alternative designs for the centralized water treatment system.

“This experience forged a connection between multiple disciplines in different countries to carry out the greatest of tasks, which is to lend a hand to those who need it. Seeing this take shape before my eyes, filled my mind with peace and hope for humanity. I have learned that learning, listening, and paying attention to people with the application of academic knowledge pays off despite the bad times and that together we can make a difference," UTEP Study Abroad student Leslie J. Nunez said.

The service-learning program has given students the unparalleled opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these underserved indigenous populations that rely on their natural resources to survive in this unique biodiversity corridor to the Amazon.

“I am passionate about Peace Engineering service-learning projects. Through these projects, students can gain academic knowledge, interpersonal skills, and self-confidence in what they have learned, connect their educational understandings to practical on-the-ground involvement and most importantly, students can find meaning and purpose to their profession and how engineers can impact human lives in a tangible way,” Santiago said.

The USTA/UTEP student team worked on preliminary designs which were modified after interviewing the residents of the resguardo. They then presented their alternative design to the Piapoco community leaders to determine the final product. The elected water treatment system is scheduled to start in a couple of months. This system will feature a treatment facility but not a distribution system, residents will still need to haul the water to their homes. UTEP students are planning a fundraiser to provide point-of-use systems that will allow residents to safely store water in their homes. They also seek to construct a well on the furthest end of the community from the existing one to facilitate water transportation.

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