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SANTA ROSA – The first important thing to know about Engineers Without Borders – Sonoma Professionals is that you don’t have to be an engineer to join or get involved. The newly formed local chapter of the national Engineers Without Borders nonprofit is looking for many kinds of professional skills to support and accomplish its work.

One of EWB-SP’s charter members is Pam Chanter of Vantreo Insurance Brokerage, whose volunteer work with indigenous people in the Amazon Basin of Peru caught the attention of Dave Sandine, a semi-retired professional engineer. Mr. Sandine decided to start a local chapter of EWB after hearing a presentation about its work at a gathering of the American Society of Civil Engineers in San Francisco.

For Ms. Chanter's photos from Peru, go to:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lavozbilingualnewspaper/sets/72157623957124918/

EWB-USA designs and builds simple, low-cost engineering solutions for poverty stricken communities around the world usually related to clean water, sanitation and renewable energy. Founded in 2002, the organization has grown to 250 chapters nationwide with 12,000 members including both professional engineers and students working on 350 projects in more than 45 countries. Because the organization partners with other non-governmental agencies (NGOs) already working in communities, EWB’s projects can focus on addressing specific infrastructure needs.

After learning about EWB, Mr. Sandine contacted some of his engineering colleagues in Sonoma County to gauge their interest in this work. A year and a half later, Mr. Sandine finds himself president of a local chapter of EWB with members from most of the major engineering firms as well as the Sonoma County Water Agency, the North Coast Water Quality Control Board and engineering students from Santa Rosa Junior College.

Ms. Chanter encouraged Mr. Sandine to start the local EWB chapter and then made the connection with APECA, the Association Promoting Education and Conservation in Amazonia, and its American founder and president, Gina Low. As a result, EWB-SP’s first project is to design and build a water catchment system to supply clean drinking water for a small village located in the Fernando de Lores region of Peru in the Amazon Basin, where Ms. Chanter has been involved since 2004. This will be APECA’s sixth drinking water project in the region.

In January 2011, a contingency from EWB-SP will travel to Peru to evaluate and plan the project in coordination with APECA and its sister organization, APECA Peru. Kason Grady and Maggie Robinson from the North Coast Water Quality Control Board and Otto Bertolero from the city of Santa Rosa will make the fact-finding trip. Mr. Bertolero, the project lead, is originally from Peru.

The trip is timed to enable the EWB-SP group to meet up with the APECA founder, who will be in Peru. In the winter months when the river is high, the Amazon Basin villages are easier to reach by boat. Indeed, the Amazon River is both the region’s lifeline and the source of its greatest challenges.

“The people who build these villages along the river use the river for everything including drinking, but the river is badly contaminated,” Mr. Sandine said, noting that the businesses and inhabitants of Iquitos, the nearest large city with a population of 250,000, take water from the river upstream then dump wastewater back into the river downstream because they have no sewer system. As a result, the river is full of contaminants.

“There’s a 20 percent death rate among children, which is extremely high,” Mr. Sandine said. “Yet the means for preventing this is fairly simple, low-tech and isn’t super expensive.”

Since rainfall is plentiful in the rainforest climate, the water catchment system EWB-SP plans to build will feature rain gutters added to the metal roof of the local schoolhouse to divert rainwater into a tile-lined tank constructed of plastic or concrete with an outside tap for villagers to draw drinking water. The tank can easily be kept clean. The biggest remaining challenge will be training villagers not to use dirty buckets to gather their water. Fortunately, that’s where the work of APECA comes in.

Although these systems are not technically complex, each project must be well-financed and planned out due to logistical barriers.

“Everything has to be boated in to build these systems,” Mr. Sandine explained. “We will try to purchase locally as much as we can, but ‘locally’ may mean going to Brazil, then having supplies such as cement and reinforcement steel boated up river. We won’t be able to run down to Home Depot for bags of cement.”

In addition to support from local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and churches, EWB-SP is seeking donations to finance the $30,000 project. Mr. Sandine also plans to pursue long-term grant funding sources since his goal is to make this a pilot project that can be replicated all over the world. After missing out on the Peace Corps as a young college graduate, founding EWB-SP represents a renewed opportunity for him.

“There are 30 villages just in this one area of Peru,” Mr. Sandine said. “I could spend the rest of my life doing this. A little bit of money can make a big difference. Projects like this are actually about saving people’s health and saving lives.”

For more information, see www.ewbsonoma.org.