Jay Thrasher signed on for two years in the US Peace Corps as a volunteer water and sanitation engineer and moved to the Dominican Republic. Working with the 245 residents of the rural community La Mulata, Thrasher guided the construction of a 3km aqueduct to improve the water supply.
He writes thoughtfully about the experience in the essay “Engineers Braving International Borders.” We’ve excerpted parts of that essay below.
For months the men of the community worked on digging a three-foot deep trench with pick axes and shovels to house the 3km pipeline of the aqueduct. Women and children followed the work crews of men with their large pots, food and water jugs out into the hillside to prepare lunch over an open fire.
“We must remember that in the developing world we are more than engineers – we are capacitors, educators, teachers, friends, and community members that are directly affecting, first handedly, the life of the community.”
We would pass countless nights together brainstorming project logistics over candlelight and months on end of project construction sweating beneath the unforgiving sun. My relationship with the people of the community became as important as my engineering work itself. I began realizing that engineers in the developing world do not fulfill their potential by simply providing solutions to technical design challenges.
Just shy of my two years of service I was able to train and oversee the construction of the aqueduct. Fresh water was now available at the homes of all the beneficiaries who participated in the project. I realized that even though the physical integrity of the aqueduct will deteriorate over time and will one-day fail, it is our deepest hope that the community will have the strength and knowledge to repair and rebuild for generations to come.
The process of project turnover is undoubtedly the most critical point for maximizing the lifespan of any system and ensuring its proper function and use. It is within this process that insufficient education and training can leave the customer, client, beneficiary, community member, user, etc. helpless and without means for maintaining their system. Whenever we commit to providing engineering services abroad we should be committed to providing the necessary time as well as technological and psychological support until the project is sustained in the hands of the community. We must remember that in the developing world we are more than engineers – we are capacitors, educators, teachers, friends, and community members that are directly affecting, first handedly, the life of the community
“The unique and complex challenges of the developing world serve as one of the best methods for an engineer to gain a deep appreciation of his or her role, abilities and subsequent responsibility in society.”
The real success of my work remains present not solely in the construction of the water system but also in the strengthening of the community organization. It was my personal interaction as well as my community involvement that taught me what should in fact be the true focus of development work.
In the developing world, where resources and educated professionals are limited, there exists a need for well-diversified engineers, competent in community relations and collaborative approaches. They are to be capable of training, communicating, and in most cases, able to construct what they design. I have begun to believe that the true knowledge and intrinsic value of the engineer is rooted within their ability to act as the teacher, builder and most importantly facilitator between community and technology, bringing projects from concept to creation. This has shown me how the unique and complex challenges of the developing world serve as one of the best methods for an engineer to gain a deep appreciation of his or her role, abilities and subsequent responsibility in society.