Engineering Change

Bringing Water to Peruvian Community

Even though it involved back-breaking work with axes and shovels on sun-baked Peruvian bedrock, Maggie Hoff would go back in heartbeat. For the people.

For much of this past summer, Hoff and 11 other students – including eight from Pratt - dug ditches and laid pipe to deliver much needed clean drinking water to the inhabitants of a squatter community on the hillsides overlooking the Moche Valley on Peru's northern coast. Called Cuidad de Dios, the community of 60 families was formed about a dozen years ago, when flooding from an El Nino forced people who had previously lived on the valley floor up into the highlands.

Although Ciudad de Dios is only about 30 minutes inland from the ocean, it is situated in the desert, receiving less than 2 millimeters of rain each year.

"Even though it was a tremendous amount of work, especially the physical labor, I would go back again," said Hoff, a civil and environmental engineering junior from Pecatonica, Illinois.  "The memories of breaking through bedrock with a pick-axe are certainly still vivid in my mind, but they are also dominated by recollections of my wonderful, interesting and loving friends in Ciudad de Dios."

This year's visit to Cuidad de Dios was actually Hoff's second. Last year, during a two-week preliminary visit as part of the Engineers Without Borders program, Hoff and other students talked to the people and gathered information about their needs.

"I had not been in the town for three minutes before I was surrounded by children and women, all wanting to kiss my cheek and welcome me to their proud little community," Hoff recalls of that first trip. "I also remember the smells - whether it was the saltiness of the nearby ocean, food cooking in someone's dirt home, or the pigs everyone keeps in their backyards, there was always something fragrant."

On her return from the first trip, Hoff, with the help of David Schaad, associate professor of the practice in civil and environmental engineering, conceived of a plan to bring water 3 kilometers across the arid landscape to the people. The proposal – Engineering Change in Peru – was supported by DukeEngage.

A key aspect of the second trip was not only to bring water to the people, but building relationships with the people and ensuring that they felt an ownership with the project.

"More than anything, we wanted to truly get to know the community and understand their way of life and their needs, because you can't truly help someone until you understand them," she said.

While the water project was the largest part of the trip, the students also worked on community beautification, including trash collection, and the painting of a large mural, with the aid of local children, in the town's central plaza.

They also made adobe bricks and used them to construct signs, which were plastered and painted, to clearly mark an archeological site nearby. First excavated by Brian Billman, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the site is a former home of the Moche, a pre-Incan society of Peru. In exchange for helping to protect the site from looters, Billman funds a development project of the community's choice each year. His organization MOCHE (Mobilizing Opportunities through Community Heritage Empowerment), has built a schoolhouse in the town and was a facilitator of the water project.

While the students made contributions that will greatly improve the quality of life for community of Cuidad de Dios, Hoff keeps returning to the impact the people made on her personally.

"On one particularly hot day, they were not expected to work, but we students were working anyway," she said. "Halfway through our laborious morning, we saw an enormous group of women and old men from the village, everyone who didn't have to be at other paid jobs, coming towards us with their makeshift shovels and picks in hand.  All of them, walking towards us across the desert outside of their community, voluntarily contributing their time and hard work to a project that meant so much to both them and us, is an indelible image in my mind." 

Hoff, who has been involved with Engineers Without Borders since her freshman year at Pratt, feels that her experience in Peru will have an impact in deciding what she will ultimately do. The Peace Corps is a short-term option.

"I know I also want to do some sort of environmental protection or sustainable development work, and there is no place better to make a real impact than the developing world," she said. "Even if I end up working in industry in the United States, I think I'll continue to be involved with these sorts of projects, maybe through the professional division of Engineers Without Borders."

The field work in Peru was also an opportunity to put to use some of lessons learned back in the classrooms of Duke.

"To see direct applications of the equations and theories I have learned energizes me for my academic work - it provides motivation for learning things that sometimes seem irrelevant," she said. "Remembering the concepts of frictional losses in pipe flow from my Fluid Mechanics class never seemed so important as when I was trying to calculate whether or not 300 people could feasibly get water from a springbox 3 kilometers away!"