Blog Action Day: Sascha Murillo Wades Through Water (Notes from the Field)

It’s October 15th again, which marks another Blog Action Day. Last year’s topic was Climate Change and this year the focus is Water. Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to learn about A Spring of Hope, a nonprofit that builds water wells in rural African schools. Brittany Young, its founder and President, is also a sophomore at Penn. Their blog will also be participating in today’s Blog Action Day:

Today, we are happy to feature Sascha Murillo, a senior in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) and research assistant at CHIP, as she shares her “Notes from the Field” on this day of awareness.

Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation– United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7c

I joined the Center for High Impact Philanthropy in the summer of 2009 after I had traveled with Penn Engineers Without Borders (PennEWB) to Gundom Village in the Northwest Province of Cameroon with 12 students and 2 professional engineers from the University of Pennsylvania. Our goal: to work with a local NGO and the villagers of Gundom to build a sustainable water distribution system that would provide potable and accessible water to the village residents. I had no knowledge of engineering, no development work experience, and had never traveled to West Africa. I gained much from such an experience, as the project was not easy. We faced many logistical, cultural, and financial obstacles. Yet, it was precisely those obstacles that helped me gain a better understanding of the nature of development work.

Since I started working for CHIP, I have been able to refer to my own experiences working for an NGO in the area of sustainable development when assessing a particular organization’s impact in the field.  In addition, I have also had the opportunity to apply a unique lens to the kind of work PennEWB conducts.

This past summer in 2010, I had the opportunity to work with 2 other students and 2 professional engineers in leading a new project in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is characterized by the towns and villages of the Maya people, specifically the Tz’utujil and the Kaqchikel, and is what many have called the most beautiful lake in the world. Penn’s 5-year presence in Lake Atitlan is what initially attracted us to this area and we were supported in light of Penn’s Year of Water initiative that aims to explore the importance of water in all its manifestations. Yet, Lake Atitlan, a wonder of wonders and the people who inhabit this magical place, have recently come under threat of water contamination due to lack of waste water treatment and sewage systems, insufficient filtration, and cyanobacteria. Thus, the people of Lake Atitlan are in danger of losing their most precious resource: water.

Building upon the social capital Penn had built around the lake, we met with many local organizations to discuss the impending problem. I grew wary of the fact that we had a problem and a project, but no community. Our previous projects had involved local contacts reaching out to our organization. This time around, we saw that we were occupying a very different role.

We met with a local engineer who had organized efforts among the national government, international, and local NGOs in order to find ways to ensure safe and clean access to potable water. For PennEWB, these projects were far out of our capacity and scale. The proposed systems by the engineer would serve thousands of people whereas PennEWB had generally worked with communities of a few hundred. Further, we were overwhelmed by a problem that we were only beginning to understand.  We learned the importance of understanding the landscape, not only in geographic terms, but in terms of culture and development. We had yet to understand the cultural significance of water in the various communities in the lake. We soon became aware of the landscape of the various players (national government, municipal government, local organizations, international NGOs, etc) who had a stake in the development of Lake Atitlan.

So, we found ourselves in a common bind that many “do-gooders” often find themselves, asking “What can I do with the many resources and expertise I have to offer? Where can I go? Where do I fit?” When we were about to throw up our hands, we stumbled upon a wonderful local NGO by the name of At’it Ala. This organization has worked in community development in the area of San Juan for 9 years. They work with the local Mayan communities to foster economic development while preserving cultural diversity. We worked with them to find a niche for PennEWB in the area of irrigation and together we are now working to find sustainable solutions to irrigating farm plots with clean water.

About PennEWB: PennEWB is part of a national organization—that of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA). EWB-USA supports community-driven development programs worldwide through the design and implementation of sustainable engineering projects. EWB-USA’s constituent chapters (both student and professional) partner with communities and local NGOs abroad and make a 5-year commitment to address community development priorities through low-cost, small-scale, replicable, and sustainable engineering solutions utilizing local resources and expertise. Most often, the development goals involve improvements in water and sanitation. The EWB chapter at the University of Pennsylvania was started in 2004 and since has carried out water distribution, sanitation and hygiene, and latrine projects in small communities in Honduras and Cameroon.