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A bag of rice and a pallet of bottled water can immediately save lives in impoverished communities rocked by natural disaster. But a new water treatment facility or an irrigation system lifts communities out of survival mode and allows them to sustain themselves for a generation and beyond.

That’s what inspires Engineers Without Borders, a group of highly educated men and women who use their free time to design and build systems to serve communities in developing nations. The Minnesota chapter — made of engineers from dozens of Twin Cities firms including Black & Veatch, H.B. Fuller, and Medtronic — is helping the small mountain village of Milla Tres, Honduras, build a new water treatment and distribution system. The community’s old system was crippled during a 2009 earthquake.

“We are trying to improve the lives of the people in this village, minimize time hauling water, minimize the time they are sick drinking not-clean water, so they can spend more time in school and more time making a living for their family,” said volunteer Nancy Stowe, a Twin Cities water resources engineer at Houston Engineering. Stowe understands that region well. She served in Honduras as a member of the Peace Corps years earlier.

The water project “goes beyond helping them,” she said. “I see it as a cultural exchange. They offer incredible talents and we learn from them as well.”

The Minnesota professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders, collaborating with the University of Minnesota chapter, has worked on projects in about a dozen communities in Africa, Central and South America since it was formed in 2005.

“Almost every project we’ve done has been water-related. It’s driven by community needs,” said past Minnesota chapter president Mark Ryan, a water resources engineer for Dakota County.

The Minnesota professional chapter, affiliated with the national organization headquartered in Colorado, has 50 to 100 active members at any given time. Because of the time, travel and financial commitment — everyone covers their own travel expenses — volunteers tend to be young professional and empty nesters.

A professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, started the national organization in 2002 after an eye-opening trip to South America. Children did not attend school because their time was spent collecting water from miles away. The nonprofit’s name nods to another renowned international humanitarian nonprofit formed in 1971: Doctors Without Borders.

Engineers Without Borders now counts 16,800 members working through nearly 300 chapters across the country.

“We all want to give back to the community,” said volunteer Gus Shryack, a structural engineer at BKBM Engineers. “It helps when you can use your skills to make a larger difference.”

Seeking sustainability

Materials engineer Kellen O’Brien is leading a team of about 15 Minnesotans on the water project in Milla Tres, located along the Caribbean coast in the northwestern part of Honduras.

Eight engineers, including O’Brien and Shryack, traveled to the country last fall and built a 17,000-gallon masonry water storage tank — the first phase of a multiple-phase construction project. Before the trip, engineers here in Minnesota spent hundreds of hours conducting research on Milla Tres, communicating with local community members and designing the new system, which must be able to survive earthquakes.

“It’s so much upfront work. We put in 90 percent of our time here doing all the engineering and doing all the planning,” Stowe said.

One of the first observations that volunteers made upon arriving in the community last fall? Potable water is harder to find and more expensive than soda.

Around the globe, an estimated 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services, according to the World Health Organization and the United Nations. Unclean water and poor sanitation are a leading cause of child mortality. Childhood diarrhea — closely associated with insufficient water supply, inadequate sanitation, and contaminated water — is estimated to cause 1.5 million child deaths per year, mostly among children younger than 5 living in developing countries, according to the United Nations.

“Clean water is a commodity,” Shryack said. “The drinking water they have access to right now [in Milla Tres] is not properly treated.”

Engineers Without Borders is raising funds to return to Honduras several times, including a trip in March. At that time, they will start work on constructing a lid for a storage tank, building a separate sedimentation tank and laying miles of pipeline to connect the new system to the community. O’Brien estimates the project could cost as much as $100,000.

‘Know the communities’

Local companies and service groups, including Minneapolis City of Lakes Rotary Club, Black & Veatch, Bechtel, H.B. Fuller, Medtronic and Bolton & Menk, have donated money, space for fundraisers and access to specialized engineering software.

“It’s a project that has sustainability,” said John Vandermyde, a member of the Minneapolis City of Lakes Rotary Club, which has given $5,000 to the Milla Tres project and plans to give them an addition $7,000 this month. “It’s a perfect match. Engineers Without Borders had the technical expertise. We have Rotary clubs in Honduras. We can connect with them and they can be hands on the ground for financial management.”

Engineers Without Borders is careful not to force solutions on communities, O’Brien said. Instead, they work with community members and leaders to assess needs and solutions — and understand there is an interplay between infrastructure and community life and practices.

Then, they require a local contribution. The communities cover 10 percent of a project’s cost, usually through a mix of money and in-kind labor.

“It’s important to know the communities — not just run in, build it and run out — in order for it to be a lasting project,” Stowe said.

They build using locally sourced materials and technology to ensure that the community can maintain the infrastructure and find replacement parts as needed. Maintenance plans are one of the critical pieces of the collaboration between the community and the volunteer engineers.

Stowe will be part of the group of engineers traveling to Honduras in March.

“It’s great to have a place to apply the skills we’ve practiced for years in a productive way. The people are grateful,” Stowe said. “It feels great when the project is complete and it changes lives.”

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804