By the time they are back on U.S. soil on July 2, members of a North Coast engineering team trekking into the Peruvian rain forest this weekend will have delivered safe, clean water to remote village residents for whom even a thirst-quenching drink has always carried risk.
Using designs and expertise they already have used to bring life-saving change to three other Amazon Basin communities, the five representatives for the Sonoma County chapter of Engineers Without Borders are headed to a region two of them know and the others will experience for the first time.
But their commitment is the same: to share the luxury of clean water enjoyed by those in the developed world, and to improve the ease and efficiency with which the rain catchment and treatment system they’ve developed can be replicated elsewhere in the area, where rainfall is abundant but unpolluted water scarce.
“It’s something everybody needs,” said Sebastopol resident Ben Campanile, 38, who will make his fourth trip to Peru when he and the rest of the group leave Saturday.
While there, “you get a sense of how desperate they are for clean water, how important it is in their daily lives, and how much we really take clean drinking water for granted here in the states,” Campanile said.
Their trip to the village of San Jose, home to about 70 people on the Ucayali River just miles from where it flows into the Amazon, includes travel by air, bus and boat, leading them through the city of Iquitos in the northeastern portion of Peru to a modest lodge (mosquito netting, no electrical service) that they’ve stayed in on each trip so far.
They’ll commute by boat to the project site, a tiny cluster of dwellings surrounding a soccer field where severe flooding during the wettest part of the year makes it impossible to get to even the nearest neighbor’s house except by boat, said Chuck Corley, of Santa Rosa, a digital design engineer for National Instruments.
But while the region gets some 113 inches of rainfall each year, villagers are accustomed to frequent sickness, particularly among children, thanks to bacteria, parasites and other contaminants ever-present in their water despite time-consuming efforts to hike to the cleanest river spots to collect it.
“They’re always downstream from somewhere else,” said Steve Worrell, president of the Sonoma County EWB chapter.
The rain forest, said Corley, 57, who also made the trek last year, is somewhat otherworldly, so different is it from home. But the people, “are very much like us,” he said.
“They care about their kids. They want better things for them. They don’t want them to be sick.”
Phaidra Campbell, 36, a Marin County structural engineer, will see Peru for the first time, though she has worked on projects in other developing countries.
“You want to give some part of yourself to them, and in return, they give so much back to you. It’s a phenomenal experience,” she said.
The 7-year-old group, one of more than 200 mostly college- and university-based chapters of Engineers Without Borders, or EWB, around the nation, began pursuing the mission of clean water in Peru as an outgrowth of earlier work by a local woman named Pam Chanter, who organized similar efforts over the previous decade with funding by local service organizations.