Engineers Without Borders in Panama

Life is simple and generally carefree for the village of nearly 250 fishermen, artisans, and subsistence farmers of the community of Sandubidi — also known as Popa II — on the island of Isla Popa in the Bocas del Toro region of the Republic of Panama.

However, a daily challenge they face is access to clean water. For nearly two years, though, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-RPI) has been working with the community to develop a solution.

Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit club of the Rensselaer Student Union and chapter of the larger national organization of the same name. It is focused on making a difference in the lives of communities around the world. The Rensselaer chapter was founded in November 2010, under the leadership of then Rensselaer students Jill Mendelson ’10 and Elliannah Hunderfund ’11.  At that same time, the students also launched the chapter’s first project, “Development of Clean Water Source,” which seeks to deliver a system for collecting and storing adequate volumes of clean water for the Sandubidi (Popa II) community.

The project required support from the entire chapter, including 40 active undergraduate members. Members collaborated to understand the needs of the international problem, learn about water supply and treatment, and create plans for implementation. The project also requires that some team members receive additional experience through travel and direct interaction with Panamanian stakeholders and partners.

The student members also receive support from three professional mentors: James (Chip) Kilduff, associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rensselaer; Alex Michaels, an energy engineer affiliated with Malcolm Pirnie, ARCADIS; and David Railsback, an environmental engineer from ARCADIS, which is an international company that provides consultancy, design engineering, and management services in the fields of infrastructure, water, environment, and buildings. Members contribute to technical design, fundraising, community relations, and chapter administration.

“The mission of EWB is to support community-driven development programs worldwide through the design and implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while fostering responsible leadership,” said Kathleen DiMilia ’14, a junior majoring in industrial and management engineering, who also serves as chapter president and previous project leader. “We have been working with the community of Sandubidi to engineer a sustainable solution to improve their water supply and quality.  Our project will allow their community to meet the basic human needs of access to clean water and give them more opportunities to develop and prosper.”

To begin the project, several chapter members ventured to the Popa II community last January, as part of their first assessment trip. The trip provided them with an opportunity to become acquainted with the community dynamics and politics, collect information about the community, as well as work on sampling the water and environment for possible contaminants. Preliminary water testing suggested arsenic contamination in the water supply, as well as inadequate water supply during the drier months.

“Projects like this really embody what it means to be an engineer,” said Alex Angilella, former EWB president, who is now a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. He also participated in the first trip. “As a student, the opportunity to participate in an international development project is rewarding in so many ways. We are applying our academic experience to a real issue and working to come up with a creative and simple solution.” 

“The project in Popa II presents our engineering students with an opportunity to explore and develop a water system within realistic constraints, which is something that we cannot do as well in the classroom,” said Kilduff. “International experiences are strongly supported and encouraged because they provide insights that engineers can draw on to create global solutions to design a better world. In Panama, the students have been faced with the challenge of developing a solution while also exploring a culture that they are unfamiliar with, and over the years, they have been able to collaborate with the community to find a solution that will allow them year-round access to clean water.”

“At the same time, in mentoring the EWB members, I have come to see some students who are risk averse; they are motivated by openness to volunteerism, a desire to experience new things,” Kilduff added. “With a focus on sustainability, the environment, and innovating local solutions to global challenges, the students really can make a difference in the life of this community.”

Last August, Stephen Nock ’13, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering; Vince Buhler, a junior majoring in chemical engineering; Kyle Geisler, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering; and Kathleen DiMilia, along with two local engineering professionals and EWB professional mentors Alex Michaels and David Railsback, ventured to Sandubidi for the second assessment trip.

According to tourism details and historical details about the island community, Sandubidi in the Ngöbe language means “Point of the Boa.” In Ngöbe folklore, the original settlers of the village were forced to move out after a giant boa constrictor ate all of their chickens and other small animals. The small boas found across the island today are said to be the descendants of this huge serpent.

Nestled in the midst of green rainforests, lush mangroves, and picturesque waterfront, Sandubidi is a traditional Ngöbe-Buglé community, whose residents still grow some of their own food and practice small-scale fishing. There are no roads or vehicles on Isla Popa, and the traditional method of transport is a cayuco dugout canoe which the Ngöbe use to travel around the archipelago, causing no damage to the environment. The houses are constructed with locally sourced wood, and the majority have no electricity. Rainwater catchment systems are used throughout the village.

“During the second trip,  we really wanted to understand how we might educate the community on the importance of clean water, so that people can stay healthy,” said Nock. “Water must be available for drinking, and should also be sufficient for washing. In Popa II, current options include rainwater catchment in tank collection systems and shallow hand-dug groundwater wells. Community members avoid drinking from the groundwater whenever possible, but are limited by the amount of rain they receive during the dry season between the months of August and October. The trip provided us with a chance to test the feasibility of different solutions and obtain a greater understanding of the community and their culture.”  

While in Panama, EWB members also met with representatives of the newly formed EWB-Panama organization, a Panamanian university, and several other resources in the country.  In addition, the members also had the opportunity to work with engineers from the Panama Canal Authority..

The August trip focused on finalizing the community agreement and NGO partnership; conducting additional community data collection, water sampling, and testing; geographically mapping the area; introducing the group’s presence to governmental and non-governmental organizations; and continuing to foster a trusting relationship with the community.

To date, there are more than 40 students supporting the clean water project along with mentorship from professors and professionals.

“The process of bringing clean water to the community in Isla Popa II involves reaching out to the experts who have done what we are trying to do in other locations and also getting the information out to the larger group about what is happening,” Nock added. “The ‘Development of Clean Water Source’ project presents a unique opportunity to advance our academic community while simultaneously creating a solution driven to improve the lives of our partner in Panama. The solution will be one that the community is committed to as much as we are. The solution will also be sustainable insomuch as the residents of Popa II community will be able to support it and maintain it long after the completion of the project.”

For now, EWB is looking into developing water collection and purification systems for Popa II. The organization will work to design the actual system and present it to EWB national office in Boulder, Colo. If the system design is approved, the chapter will begin the implementation phase. The inhabitants of Popa II also will assist with the financial side of the project. Members also plan to work closely with the Popa II residents to correctly construct the system.

To support the ongoing phases of the project, last summer the organization received an $8,500 grant from Pratt & Whitney, and also $2,000 from Boeing. In addition, in October 2012, they also received a $10,000 grant from the School of Engineering to continue their water filtration and storage project in Panama as part of the Dean’s Grant program for School of Engineering faculty and students. The award will go toward funding the design and construction of prototypes of the water supply system, as well as a trip that will take place later this year to begin the physical implementation of the system. EWB is also participating in the weR Gold initiative, an effort comprised of alumni donors who work to select projects with the potential for the greatest impact on the Rensselaer community, while appealing to a wide cross-section of alumni.

To see the Engineers Without Borders in Panama, watch the travel video produced by Stephen Nock ’13 and edited by Zach Leighton:

For more information about the Rensselaer Student Union chapter of Engineers Without Borders, visit:

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