|Mike with workers and residents of Ilam|
A: The organization’s mission is to "harness the power of professional and student engineers to complete...low-tech, high-impact projects." They have about 12,000 volunteers working on projects throughout the world. The CU EWB team—composed of college students and practitioners like myself—is working on a reed bed wastewater treatment system for a new hospital in Ilam. The system is a modified septic system that uses reed beds rather than a leach field to treat the effluent from the septic tank.
Q: What kind travel did this involve?
A: It took about 39 hours to fly to Kathmandu (via Chicago and Abu Dhabi). I then took a domestic flight to Bhadrapur in eastern Nepal, then a three-hour jeep ride to Ilam.
|Ilam is famous for its tea, seen here in one of|
the village's tea fields
A: This trip was a sort of homecoming for me as I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal from '87 to '89. While helping students with their service project, I was anxious to see what cultural changes occurred in the time that I was gone (especially given the period of civil unrest which had surfaced since my time there). Additionally, I had wanted to mix development work with my career and EWB was a perfect fit.
Q: Looking through the eyes of an engineer, what did you see as their greatest need?
A: Basic infrastructure is the most immediate need: drinking water, waste (solid and liquid) disposal/treatment, transportation, power. They are all greatly needed. Nepal is extremely poor and in recovery from a recent civil war. Given that backdrop, one can imagine the state of their infrastructure.
Q: What type of impact or progress did you feel you made?
A: Baby steps—but nonetheless important ones. Our waste treatment system is one small part of creating the overall momentum that is building in Ilam. The project fits into Ilam's goal of becoming a "Green City" (a designation it has now received from the United Nations). These and other efforts facilitated by local bodies are dedicated to creating a cultural change in how the people of Ilam view the impact they have on their environment and livelihood. I also felt an impact in working with the students, some of whom are able to stay for several months this summer. They are building incredible connections and interpersonal skills. Seeing the world and allowing those with whom they interact to see the world through different eyes—it’s simply amazing.
|Mike on site of the old system's excavation. In the |
background is the hospital for which the new
septic system is being built
A: That’s simple—the collective people of Nepal. I didn't know what to expect going back after over 20 years, especially after the traumatic events that occurred. I found that the Nepali people still put "Southern hospitality" to shame—they are some of the most generous and open people in the world.
Q: What's your next endeavor?
A: This fall we will decide on the next project to tackle in or around Ilam. The possibilities on the table range from fish ponds, to water source protection, to another reed bed system, to supporting a formal landfill development.
Q: Would you recommend this type of service to other practitioners?
A: Absolutely. As satisfying as helping to solve technical problems can be, the relationships you build with both students and within the local communities of other nations are invaluable.