Eighty years ago, rural America was just getting electricity. In 2016, there are places in the world still waiting for running water.
Rachel Schur Wagner is working hard to end the wait.
Wagner, a staff engineer at La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) in Durango, Colo., spent most of May half a world away in Myanmar, also known as Burma. It’s a country that, earlier this year, saw an elected government take office following some five decades of military dictatorship.
Working with the group Village Aid Project through Fort Lewis College in Durango, Wagner was part of a mission to the village of Nang Boat. Like the volunteers on NRECA International projects, it’s a lot of sweat equity for some of the most grateful people you’ll ever meet.
Letting Gravity Do the Work
“Most of the projects we do are low-technology gravity water systems,” Wagner explains. “It’s all gravity. There’s no pump, no moving parts. You basically have to have enough elevation drop at the source to the tank to get water to flow. And then enough drop from the tank into the system.”
Of course, it all starts with clean water.
“We find a spring—that’s ideal—or a stream. We hike to as close to where it starts as possible to make sure there are no people living by it, no agriculture or animals above it, so that it’s a really clean source of water. Then we make sure they have legal rights to take that water.”
Engineers devise a way not only to get the water to a holding tank, but also to construct a distribution system throughout the community and build taps—“either communal or household, depending on community size,” Wagner says.
They also have to consider whether there’s enough water to sustain the community for years to come. And after construction, there’s three years of follow-up with villagers “so they have a really good understanding of what their system is and how to maintain it. We don’t work with them and then abandon them,” Wagner says.
Complicated as it sounds, that’s the relatively easy part.
A Co-op By Any Other Name
“One of the biggest challenges,” Wagner says, “is organizing the people, meeting with community leaders, and setting up a water committee,” complete with a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer.
While water committees aren’t called “co-ops,” they have a lot in common. Residents buy into the new system, and “everybody votes for the board to represent all of the members who are served,” says Wagner, who grew up on LPEA lines in Pagosa Springs, Colo.
While many early electric co-op members were farmers who had to come up with $5 to buy into the co-op, Nang Boat’s residents are subsistence farmers who buy into the water committee with labor to build the water lines.
“We’re hand digging. The line from the source to the tank was 2 1/4 miles, and it’s all hand dug,” Wagner says. “You work from 7:30 in the morning to well after dark every night,” in temperatures well into the 90s, with humidity to match. But she didn’t hear a single complaint.
“They are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Wagner says. “They cook for you; they call you over to have a cup of tea.”
Of course, it’s not that easy to chat.
“The official language is Burmese, but there are some 111 languages they speak in Myanmar. The community we worked with are Pa’O, and they speak Pa’O,” Wagner says.
The Durango, Colo.-based Shanta Foundation, which works to improve quality of life for the people of Myanmar, provided translators.
“This time we got really lucky and had a translator that spoke Pa’O and English and Burmese, so he was able to do a direct translation. But in the past, they’ve had to translate from English to Burmese and a second translator from Burmese to Pa’O.”
Engineers Without Borders
Many volunteers are engineering students ranging in age from 19 to 32, making a journey that’s not for the faint hearted.
“I flew from Durango to Denver, then Denver to L.A., L.A. to Beijing, and Beijing to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar,” Wagner, 29, explains. And she still wasn’t in Nang Boat.
“There was an 11-hour bus ride to Taunggyi, the nearest town. And then another two-hour ride in a truck to get to the village.”
And upon arrival, you don’t check into the Marriott.
“We stayed in a schoolhouse. We put up mosquito nets and brought sleeping pads and slept on bamboo flooring,” Wagner says. “We hired someone with a truck to take us to the nearest river so we could rinse off at night.”
Wagner’s passport is well-stamped. Her foreign travels with both Village Aid Project and Engineers Without Borders have taken her to Ecuador, Laos, Nicaragua, and Thailand. Myanmar is her sixth project in a field that’s fascinated her for years.
“When I was a junior in high school, my dad made me go to a women-in-engineering conference,” Wagner recalls. She was “so-so” about it until the very end. “They had a presenter who started the Engineers Without Borders program. It had only been going maybe a year or two, but they presented everything they’d done on water projects. And that just really resonated with me.”
When she entered Fort Lewis College in 2005, “they had just started the Engineers Without Borders program, so I connected with the professors who were running it.”
Wagner is already looking ahead to May 2017, when she will return to either Myanmar or Nicaragua. She’s grateful to LPEA for allowing her to do so.
“I have a lot of support here,” she says. “They are amazing.”
That feeling is mutual.
“I am continually touched by the generosity of all our employees at LPEA,” says CEO Mike Dreyspring. “We are extremely proud of Rachel, and I hope all our members are as well.”
To support the Engineers Without Borders program at Fort Lewis College, please visit https://apps.fortlewis.edu/makeagift. On step 2, click “Select Fund,” then choose “Student Organizations” and “FLC Engineers Without Borders Fund.”