Engineering sustainable water solutions in Latin America

High school students from the Builders Beyond Borders program help install pipes that will carry water to the mountain town.
Photo Credit: Photo by Tony Riggio

Perched in the rugged mountains of central Ecuador, the village of Tingo Pucará seems an unlikely place for artistic inspiration to strike. But Tony Riggio never leaves his camera behind—and his photos of Tingo Pucará illustrate what can happen when Rotary members and young people team up on a water project.

Riggio has been leading youth expeditions to Central and South America since 2001, when his daughter participated in a program of Builders Beyond Borders (B3), a nonprofit based in Connecticut, USA. Construction projects have included hurricane shelters in the Dominican Republic, bridges in Nicaragua, and classrooms in Costa Rica. Water and sanitation are always primary components.

“People don’t believe what you tell them sometimes—that things are how they are in parts of Central and South America,” says Riggio, a member of the Rotary Club of Westport. “Water is such a precious commodity.”

In April 2011, Riggio traveled to Tingo Pucará—one of five B3 project sites across Ecuador that season—to build pipelines in a joint effort with the Peace Corps and Engineers Without Borders. The village stands at an altitude of 12,600 feet, with the nearest spring about 4,900 feet down a steep path.

Historically, faced with a lack of potable water and arable land, the men of Tingo Pucará have headed to the lowlands to find work, leaving the women to transport water for cooking, washing, and drinking. Before the project was completed, the 26 village families had as little as 15 minutes of running water per month, sent from a neighboring area when available.

The engineers designed a pumping system to draw water from the spring-fed stream, and the B3 team, made up of high school students and adult advisers, worked with locals to install the pipes, which now bring running water to homes.

“For our kids, that project was not very rewarding–until the last day, when we got to turn the water on,” says Amy Schroeder-Riggio, executive director of Builders Beyond Borders and Riggio’s wife. “When you’re doing a water project, you are laying the pipe, you’re covering it over, and it doesn’t even look like you were there. But when they turn the water on and everybody’s crying, it’s an incredible moment.”

Collaborating with the worldwide networks of the Peace Corps and Rotary boosts credibility and facilitates relationships, Schroeder-Riggio says. In 2008, B3 built a school for hearing-impaired students in San Marcos, Guatemala, with help from a local Rotary club. This year B3 teams will partner with the Rotary Club of Georgetown, Guyana, on five construction projects, including community centers and a sand bridge that will connect coastal islands to medical facilities.

“These organizations make the world go ’round,” Schroeder-Riggio says. “The heart of it is our kids. It’s about building character, their relationship with these leadership programs. It lines up nicely with Rotary.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Rotarian