Writer: Linda Fresques
For the second year in a row, a group of NMSU students skipped the usual festivities associated with spring break and did some back-breaking work instead. The students and their faculty adviser spent their week away from campus building a new well for the 80 or so residents of Ruiz De Ancones, about 80 miles southwest of Chihuahua, Mexico.
The 11 students are members of NMSU Engineers Without Borders (EWB), NMSU Organization of Aggies Students Inspiring Sustainability (OASIS) and NMSU Aggies go Global (AGG). They were joined by Kenny Stevens, associate professor of engineering technology and adviser to EWB.
Last year, a group of 12 students built a bridge for the 150 or so residents of the village of Las Boquillas, enabling them to traverse a stream that floods for several weeks each year, isolating them from food and other necessities. The village is about 30 miles from the larger community of Satevo, about 80 miles southwest of Chihuahua City.
While planning for that project, the students identified 20 possible projects that were most needed, could help the most people and were achievable, choosing the well as their second project.
“The community’s existing well was contaminated with nitrates and was making town inhabitants sick,” said former EWB President Dorothy Lanphere. Lanphere, who founded the NMSU chapter of EWB two years ago, is an electrical engineering graduate student.
The students made an assessment trip in January 2010 and began designing, planning and raising money for the project, putting in an estimated 1,100 man hours before they traveled to Mexico and began actual construction of the 30-foot-deep well.
They made detailed measurements and spent many hours making formal plans for the project. Meanwhile, they held bake sales, car washes and other fund raising efforts throughout the year to earn $3,200 to purchase the concrete, rebar and other materials used to construct the well and a new pump house.
Adviser Kenny Stevens, who has been on sabbatical in Mexico working with the Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua since January, was able to get water samples tested to insure that the water from the proposed well location was not tainted and to locate materials to help facilitate preparation for implementation of the project. The students spent five days working on the well and were joined each day by three local masons who worked alongside them.
“The construction of a well was overall a whole new experience for me,” said Cesar Villasana, electrical engineering technology student and newly elected secretary for EWB.
“Before we could start pouring the concrete into the molds, we first needed to make sure there was water underneath the ground. One of the first things done was to excavate using the municipio’s heavy equipment to see if there was water underground the proposed site of the well. We did hit water at about three meters.
”They also used the back hoe to dig a ditch for pipe, which was reused from the old well, which was connected to the existing pipe from the old well to connect the new well to the water tank.
The rest of the work was done by hand. They set the forms for the concrete, cut and tied rebar to strengthen the concrete, then mixed and poured the concrete into the forms. They removed the forms from the hardened concrete, placed them on top and repeated the process. They then got inside the well and continued digging so that the concrete well would drop and more forms could be placed on top.
The students placed two five-foot sections of concrete cylinders before week’s end; the town’s laborers continued on to place three more and finish the well.
“The get ‘er done attitude of the community was amazing,” said Stevens. “They had to dive down in the water for each shovel of dirt, come up for air, and then do it again—for hours,” said Stevens who traveled back to the site a week later. The town had completed the well and had begun working on a new pump house.
“This year things went more smoothly even though this project was much bigger in scope,” he added. “Also, I think we had already proven ourselves to the community.”
“Some of the people remembered us from last year,” said Lanphere. “Every night someone would appear and say, ‘Come to my house for a barbeque, ride my horses.’ It was incredible.”
OASIS member and international business student Julie Renaud said, “Participating in the project gave me the opportunity to see the economic situation of Mexico on one hand, and on the other hand, it offered me to the opportunity to meet wonderful people—Mexican people as well as the Americans on the team.” Renaud is a foreign exchange student from France.
The group is already looking toward next year’s project, perhaps building homes from compressed earth block in Tarahumara, Mexico,” said incoming EWB President Kenly Maldonado. “Those people are in an even worse situation. Getting to them requires a four hour car drive plus four more hours on horseback.”
Maldonado says they might be able to make a machine to form the compressed earth bricks and teach the people who live in the mountainous region and speak their own native language how to build homes.
“The great thing about working in Mexico is that the people are willing to finish the projects,” he said. “We just provide the spark that gets the fire going.”