Update 2020/2/4 Teachers' Hub
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STUDENT-LED INITIATIVE CREATES ACCESS TO ESSENTIAL RESOURCES AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES IN UNDER-SERVED COMMUNITIES
By Suzanne Forcese
Engineers In Action (EIA), the University of Alberta student group chapter is an interdisciplinary team under the Bridge Program of the international organization Bridges To Prosperity. As Global Citizens, the EIA strives to provide opportunities not only to individuals of developing countries but also to fellow university students.
WaterToday spoke with final year Civil Engineering student Mabel Smith, who is the co-founder and co-president of Engineers In Action. Smith’s research has included improving biological degradation technologies in wastewater treatment to better degrade emerging organic micro pollutants; construction surveying internship using a robotic total station and water quality internship in rural Kenya. “I worked to implement clean water in Kenya through water well repair, construction and management for an organization called Safe Water and Sustainable Hygiene Initiative (SAWASHI).”
It was that project that ignited her passion for exploring new areas of the world and learning different cultures. “I learned a lot about challenges of international development.” Although her work with SAWASHI included the implementation of water quality testing sites so that the organization can ensure the water they’re providing to communities is safe, she came to realize there was still a great deal of fear and misunderstanding amongst the communities. “I realized how important it really is to engage with the people. Complex issues need to be developed in partnership.”
No stranger to the classroom having taught in Thailand, Smith endeavored to develop that sense of partnership by giving presentations in schools on local and global water issues.
At that point in her engineering internship and only 20 years old, Smith also developed fond connections and speaks of her “amazing experience living with a host family off the beaten tourist trail.” Even though there were a few minor hurdles, “I found that I could not drink the water, I was just getting sick too often, so I bought bottled water,” three years later she still remains in contact with her Kenyan family.
Smith also designed the SAWASHI Company website which states that the organization managed to raise the functionality level of hand pumps in 230 community water points from 50% to 80%.
Next on her Engineering journey Smith’s work term as a Hydraulics Intern took her to Boreal Water Resources in Edmonton Canada. But her strong sense of environmental and social responsibility was calling.
Smith travelled to Bolivia. “As co-founder and current co-president of the University of Alberta Engineers in Action chapter, I have had the privilege of co-leading this group both on campus and in the implementation of the U of A’s first two suspended foot bridge projects in Bolivia.”
Why foot bridges? “In developing countries walking is the main mode of transportation. When rivers swell, walks to school or work or visits to a doctor can become life-threatening without a bridge to cross,” Smith told WT. “It is undeniable that footbridges are invaluable to isolated communities.” Foot bridges have resulted in increases of 12% children enrolled in schools; 18% better healthcare treatment; 30% labor market income; 45% fertilizer investment; 56% crop yield; 59% women in the labor market; and 75% farm profits.
“In 2018 a group of us students built our inaugural 39 metre foot bridge in the small community of Chavarrias, Bolivia, as part of a project through the University of Alberta chapter of Bridges To Prosperity.
“The school was on one side of the river and farmland on the other. Children were usually held back from school during the rainy season. They wanted this bridge so children could go to school. The river gets so high and fast during rainy season it’s nearly impossible for a grown adult to cross safely afoot let alone a child.”
As the Safety Manager with EIA Bridge Program, Smith says of her month-long bridge building project, “A footbridge is a catalyst for many positive changes in a community, allowing women to spend less time fetching water, going to the market, and completing other household tasks. The bridge we built now serves 450 people, including 30 children, providing them with year-round access to essential services. It is enabling children to get to school, farmers to get their crops and livestock to the markets, families to access health services and women to enter the labour force.”
“We all danced across the bridge when it was finished.”
The experience left Smith with a desire to do more. However, she realized she was at a disadvantage not being able to speak Spanish. “I took a year off from my studies at U of A and moved to Bolivia for a year to learn the language so I could play a bigger role in taking small communities beyond their borders.” She was able to live rent free with the Engineer In Action Manager in exchange for volunteer work.
Now back in her final year at U of A, Smith is still deeply involved with EIA and assembling her team toward working on a third bridge project in Bolivia in May and June 2020,“dependent on the political situation.”
And as for her long-range goals, Smith will apply for a Masters program in Global/International Sustainable Development.
“Engineering is the intersection of environment and social issues. With Engineers In Action I get to prepare design, construct, provide community safety and community engagement. I love it.”
“We are also preparing greater work on Water and Sanitation in Ecuador in 2021.”
Smith encourages students “to find what you like doing. And find something that you can feel good about.”
“I like problem solving, it is why I chose Engineering. I feel really good about the impact we are making with Engineers in Action.”
Bridging the gaps...instilling a sense of togetherness and spurring economic growth beyond borders.
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