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Engineers Without Borders: Water Supply Work in Thailand

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  • Jeremy Frisone

Background

Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) is a nonprofit humanitarian organization established to support community-driven development programs worldwide through partnerships that design and implement sustainable engineering projects. EWB-USA was founded in April 2000 when a representative of the Belize Ministry of Agriculture invited Dr. Bernard Amadei, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Colorado - Boulder, to visit a community in San Pablo, Belize, to assess the community's water supply. When Dr. Amadei visited the community, he learned that they lacked clean water and sanitation infrastructure. Though the community had the resources to fix the problem, they lacked the engineering expertise to complete the work and Amadei decided to send his engineering students there to create a mutually beneficial partnership within the community (Engineers Without Borders USA, 2015). Today, there are over 12,000 members of EWB-USA, and the members are mainly composed of professional and student engineers. They work with local communities and NGOs in 47 countries and 5 continents around the world on water supply, sanitation, civil works, structures, energy, agriculture, and information system projects that comprehensively address the needs of a given community (Engineers Without Borders USA, 2015).

Engineers Without Borders USA follows ten principles of development when completing international projects. These principles require that the projects be engineering-related, safety and quality-oriented, and performed within the scope of the engineers’ expertise. Also, the principles place a high focus on the importance of the community in which the project takes place. Since all EWB-USA projects are community-based, each project must be evaluated for appropriateness in the region and must develop a partnership with the impacted community that lasts at least five years. EWB also works closely with in-country partners (usually other in-country NGOs) to acquire the cultural experience that is required for the completion of the project. Finally, the EWB maintains that education of the partnering community and education of the active members is key to the success of the project infrastructure (Principles of Development, 2013). These principles of development show that EWB-USA maintains a high level of cultural awareness and works to develop projects which are specific to the needs, resources, and constraints of the region in which the projects are occurring.

Mapping

Engineers Without Borders USA has a highly specific method of mapping out regions to plan projects that places a substantial amount of focus on collaborating with the region’s community to improve quality of life. EWB begins the process of mapping out a region when they receive applications from villages for help on solving engineering problems. Once an application goes into the review process, the community receives a decision in four to six weeks. If the application is approved, the program will be posted on the EWB website, where it becomes available for acceptance by one of the student or professional chapters. According to the EWB website, “after a program is officially adopted, the community and chapter will coordinate the first assessment trip, which can occur anywhere between three months to one year after the date of adoption. The purpose of the first assessment trip is for the chapter to acquaint themselves with the community and to gather sufficient information to assess the economic, social, environmental and technical viability and sustainability of the project. The assessment trip also allows the chapter to collect important data for both future project designs and the monitoring and evaluation phase. The highly participatory assessment trip typically lasts one to four weeks and allows the chapter and community to discuss whether or not the project should move forward” (Engineers Without Borders USA, 2015).

Once the decision is made that the project should move forward, EWB enters a pre-specified partnership agreement with the community and a local partner organization such as a local NGO, municipality, or city government. Each of these entities has its own set of responsibilities that allows for the engineering experts to involve the community and organization leaders during each step of the project. For example, the community members and community based organizations are responsible for contributing to the project design, handling permits, permissions, and feedback, and helping to select and implement the final design (Project Partners Roles and Responsibilities, 2012). This involvement of the community members ensures that the project is completed in a way that suits the region’s specific needs and best improves the current situation.

When the partnership is established with the impacted community, EWB-USA follows its specified framework that they refer to as “Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning” or PMEL. According to the official terms of reference, the PMEL framework “helps EWB -USA to better understand and account for the extent to which our efforts are going in the right direction, whether progress and success can be claimed, whether we are making the changes we hoped to make, and how future efforts might be improved” (Martindale, 2014). The first phase of the PMEL framework, “Planning,” is essentially EWB-USA’s method of mapping out the region of interest. It includes “conducting a situation analysis in the community, identifying program and project goals and strategies, collaborating with partner organizations and developing a plan for monitoring and evaluation” (Martindale, 2014). It is clear that in this phase EWB places a strong emphasis on working closely with the region’s community through situation analysis and cooperation with partner organizations. EWB relies on collaboration with the community members and partner organizations in every step of the “Planning” phase, including the project design, data collection, and preparing the site for work (Project Partners Roles and Responsibilities, 2012). By including the community members and local stakeholders in every step of the planning and implementation process, EWB-USA creates an exceptional level of communication that allows the project to adequately suit the needs of the specific region.

The last three phases of the PMEL process are used in the actual application of the engineering project. In the “Monitoring” phase, EWB places focus on making sure that the project is going according to plan and noticing if adjustments need to be made. The “Monitoring” phase also works as a “communication system designed to improve management and policy decisions for different stakeholders” (Martindale, 2014). This emphasis on improving decisions for the “stakeholders,” or members of the impacted community, shows EWB’s commitment to involving the community members in every step of the project. Similarly, the “Evaluation” phase “measures progress the program or project has made, not only in completing activities but also in achieving its objectives and overall goal” within the community (Martindale, 2014). Finally, the “Learning” or “Impact Reviews and Assessment” phase is “designed to determine if the completed program work did or did not have any direct influence on the changes experienced by the community members” by analyzing the significant and lasting change that has occurred in the lives of the target group (Martindale, 2014). Like the first three phases, the “Learning” phase also clearly places its focus on improving the lives of community members through collaboration.

Region

The focus of this paper lies in the region of Thailand and will look specifically at a case study that shows how Engineers Without Borders USA implemented its mapping and action strategies to complete an extensive water supply project in the village of Nong Bua. Thailand is a country in Southeast Asia that was first established in the mid-fourteenth century and is the only Southeast Asian country to never have been colonized by a European power. A constitutional monarchy has been in place in Thailand since 1932, and in 1954 Thailand became a U.S. treaty ally after sending troops to Korea and fighting alongside the U.S.in the war against Vietnam. Since then, Thailand’s political history has suffered through turmoil, political uprisings, and coups. In May of 2014, the Royal Thai Army staged a coup against the government and placed the head of the Royal Thai Army in charge as the prime minister. The government has since created temporary drafts of constitutional reforms that will be voted on in 2016 elections (East and Southeast Asia: Thailand, 2014).

Currently Thailand is divided into 76 provinces and one municipality. Each province varies slightly in religion, average income, industry, and cultural norms depending on the location within the country, but the majority of the population speaks Thai and practices the Buddhist religion (East and Southeast Asia: Thailand, 2014). The geography of the country plays a strong role in shaping the economy and the culture of Thailand. The climate is tropical, warm, and rainy, and the most prevalent natural resources are tin, rubber, natural gas, and tungsten. The recent increase in industrial practices and combined with the naturally tropical climate has caused an increase in both air and water pollution (East and Southeast Asia: Thailand, 2014). In fact, water pollution is one of the most serious concerns facing Thailand today. There is a high level of pollution due to substances that include household chemicals, such as surfactants, pharmaceuticals and insect repellents, agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides as well as industrial chemicals, inorganics and heavy metals. Since these substances have a high level of tenacity, “these pollutants can cause contamination of surface water and groundwater which are the main water resources for drinking water production in Thailand” (Kruawal, et. al, 2004). This is a major issue for the health and safety of the residents of Thailand. This is particularly because “a considerable part of the Thai population lacks an access to health insurance, with the poor disproportionately unprotected” (Suraratdecha, et. al, 2004). Being that the water supply contamination is a major concern for the provinces of Thailand, Engineers Without Borders USA has been asked multiple times to assist in the development of clean water harvesting methods.

Case Study

The EWB-USA case study focuses on a water supply project that Engineers Without Borders USA - Rutgers University Student Chapter completed in the Thai village of Nong Bua in 2009. The project formulated due to the lack of clean drinking water in the village of Nong Bua. Although the people in the community had made numerous attempts to drill wells to provide clean, inexpensive water, their efforts failed and the impoverished residents were forced to purchase bottled water. Luckily, Carole Ketnourath, D. Michael Shafer and Chatree Saokaew from the NGO Warm Heart heard about the situation and decided to act by contacting the Rutgers chapter of EWB-USA to help solve the problem. (Silagi, et. al, 2012). Since the Rutgers chapter of EWB was specifically asked to take on the project, the village was able to bypass the typical application process. Once the Rutgers chapter reviewed the information and decided to accept the project, they began the process of mapping out the region.

EWB started the mapping process by conducting a situation analysis in the community and collecting general information on the specific region. They found that Nong Bua, a village in the sub-district of Phraro, is predominantly a farming village with 143 households. They found that the income per household is ~40,000 Baht (US$ 1,270) per year, with 68% of their income spent on purchasing sources of clean water. More importantly, it was discovered that the government constructed a water filtration and distribution system for an 88m well. However, the continuing poor water quality forced the community to purchase costly bottled water for drinking, or dig personal, shallow wells that do not provide clean water (Silagi, et. al, 2012). Once the EWB team had sufficient general knowledge on the situation, they conducted actual testing on the chemical composition of the water wells in the village and found that the water had a high level of contamination including unsafe levels of iron and manganese. They used this information to establish the general goal of improving the accessibility and affordability of clean drinking water in the village. The team then continued the mapping or “Planning” phase of the project by collaborating with Warm Heart, a local partner organization. Warm Heart is a grassroots organization that helps villagers in mountainous rural northern Thailand. They organize community projects that improve access to education and basic health services, create jobs and sustainable incomes for the poorest in the community, and restore the environment to sustain future generations (Warm Heart Worldwide, 2015). With the help of Warm Heart, the EWB Rutgers students were able to collaborate closely with the community members and local university students to assess the baseline health of the community and to brainstorm possible effective solutions to the water supply problem.

After extensive planning that involved the engineers and the community members, the team began installation of a water system that had backwashing capabilities and a maintenance schedule that was designed to reduce the amount of iron and manganese to acceptable levels. Following the aforementioned PMEL framework, the team monitored and evaluated the project by continuously testing the system and relying on the community members for constructive feedback. Using this information, the EWB team “implemented various changes to combat the remaining fecal coliform contamination, the entire system was shock- chlorinated, and a hypo-chlorinator was installed to deliver a constant chlorine injection to the water system” in order to ensure that the water remained clean and safe for drinking (Silagi, et. al, 2012).

After the project was completed, the EWB team began the “Learning” or “Impact Reviews and Assessment” phase of the project. They created a communication plan with the lead partner organization, Warm Heart, and agreed to stay in close contact to address problems in the future. They also made sure that the community was equipped with the proper coliform testing kits and operations and maintenance manuals so that they could ensure the future upkeep of the system. According to the official document, “the EWB-USA Rutgers team is confident about the future of Nong Bua after the final implementation trip during which educational programs were conducted and multiple meetings were held with the communities and local government to ensure that the project will be sustainable” (Silagi, et. al, 2012). Since the EWB Rutgers team made such a strong effort to educate and work with the local community members, government, and partner organization, it is clear that they highly valued collaboration with the affected region of interest. Throughout the mapping and completion phases of the project, the EWB team continually placed emphasis on the needs and feedback of the community in order to best achieve their goal of improving the water quality and access in the region.

Conclusion

Engineers Without Borders USA is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that uses a highly specific planning process to “map out” and complete engineering projects in over 47 countries around the world. One region in which EWB-USA has completed quality of life improvement projects is Thailand. Due to recent growth of industry, one of the biggest issues that is facing Thailand today is the abundance of pollution-- specifically water pollution that causes negative health effects for the general population. As a result of this issue, Engineers Without Borders USA has been asked to help mitigate the water supply issues in multiple villages across Thailand. One of the most prominent examples of EWB’s work in Thailand was the water supply project that the Rutgers chapter of EWB completed in the village of Nong Bua in 2009. To complete the project, the EWB team began their process of “mapping” the region by conducting site visits, gathering village-specific information, and communicating with the members of the community and a local partner organization. They maintained this high level of communication with the community members throughout the project implementation by including the residents in the planning, designing, and upkeep of the new water supply system. As shown in the Nong Bua case study, it is clear that EWB-USA places a very high amount of focus on collaboration with the community during the mapping of a region and completion of a project within that region in order to ensure that the solution best fits the needs of the community.

References

East and Southeast Asia: Thailand. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/th.html

Engineers Without Borders USA. (2012). Project Partner Roles and Responsibilities [Brochure]. Author. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/ewbgeneral/511 Project Partner Roles and Responsibilities.pdf

Engineers Without Borders USA. (2013). Principles of Development [Brochure]. Author. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/ewbgeneral/EWB-USA_Principles-of-Development.pdf

Engineers WIthout Borders USA. (2015, April 30). Retrieved May 01, 2015, from http://ewb-usa.org/

Kruawal, K., Sacher, F., & Werner, A. (2004). Chemical water quality in Thailand and its impacts on the drinking water production in Thailand. Retrieved from http%3A%2F%2Fac.els-cdn.com%2FS004896970400614X%2F1-s2.0-S004896970400614X-main.pdf%3F_tid%3D8162c9a2-f367-11e4-a079-00000aacb362%26acdnat%3D1430858840_a616e75e376e38244de835b5426bfe6e

Martindale, T., P.E. (2014). Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Program Program Description. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/ewbgeneral/COMPILED PMEL Program Description.pdf

Silagi, E., & Kretch, J. (2012). Thailand Project (Issue brief). Retrieved http://ewb.rutgers.edu/projects/thailand.html

Suraratdecha, C., Saithanu, S., & Tangcharoensathien, V. (2004). Is universal coverage a solution for disparities in health care? Findings from three low-income provinces of Thailand. Retrieved from http%3A%2F%2Fac.els-cdn.com%2FS0168851004002672%2F1-s2.0-S0168851004002672-main.pdf%3F_tid%3D716c58c4-f4f2-11e4-b27d-00000aab0f6c%26acdnat%3D1431028465_6547fe9d9e83439cb473ec48c34fc224

Warm Heart Worldwide. (2015). Retrieved from http://warmheartworldwide.org/


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