Engineers Without Borders (SJSU) in Ecuador: Day 1 in the field

Guest Blog by: Tim Hendrickson (EWB SJSU) Today, we travelled to the village of Rumipamba home of the Kichwa people. The mission is to observe firsthand the extent of oil contamination in the region and to inspect existing rainwater catchment systems in the area. Going in, we all have some preconceived notions about exactly what this looks like but are not prepared for what lies ahead of us. As we travel to Rumipamba the extent of oil company encroachment onto these tribal lands becomes more and more apparent. Rusty pipes line the edge of the road with ever increasing frequency the further out we go. First just one pipe and then as many as 10-12 running parallel from their origins at their respective oil wells to the various processing facilities littered throughout the Amazonian outskirts. Beautiful shots of epic trees and foliage are otherwise ruined by these pipes and give a brutal picture of human greed. We arrive at Rumipamba and stop outside the house of Guillermo, twice former president of his tribe, who sports a blue Rumipamba soccer jersey with his name on the back and a constant smile in spite of his afflictions. Behind his house are the remains of what used to be a stream and a source of clean water. It turns in an “L” shape with his house on the banks of the longer of the two lines. The shorter line is a murky looking section that contains both sediment as well as some sort of soap used in the remediation process. The corner of the “L” is dried up and two earthen dams prevent the water from either side from flowing in. What looks to be some type of air compressor with ribbed 4” diameter hoses sits on the bank and inside the barren section and we are told its purpose is for the remediation of the stream, a fact that can be easily ascertained by looking at the longer section of the “L”. There are noticeable areas in this section of sheen with a rainbow coloring that tells of the presence of oil products as well as small circular black splotches of crude dotting the surface. We are told that one of the pipes burst a few years back and dumped crude into this stream. The company responsible for the mess has been paying the Quechua people minimal wages to clean the toxic mess over the past two years. To me this almost seems more of a slap in the face than if the company had just simply ignored the issue as I see this picture in my head of posh executives patting themselves on the back for a job “well done.” We are then shown Guillermo’s rainwater catchment system located on the side of his house. The system is the primary source of drinking water for Guillermo and his family and provides somewhat of a consistent source during the rainy season in the Amazon. However, during the dry season, the family must look elsewhere for its water. I can only imagine how a worry such as this must weigh on the mind as the importance of this EWB trip is brought to reality. Two of the more accomplished engineers on the EWB team, Paul Friedlander (a professional from Carollo Engineers) and Jason Graham (San Jose State University grad student and EWB president) notice flaws on the design almost immediately. The system has been in use for about four years and the wood constructed frame is showing definite signs of wear, but the greater concern is for the wood that is buried in the ground which is likely decaying at a greater rate. Documents on these systems state that the choice of wood was made over a cement frame to reduce the heat transferred to the plastic barrel as a result of scorching temperatures, sacrificing structural stability for comfort. Also suggested is a type of first flush system, whose purpose would be to collect and dispose of the first bit of water that runs off the roof before it is put through the system. This is a simple and yet vital fix which would extend the life of the filter and remove soot, ash and other harmful chemicals which may be present on the roof top as a result of the houses proximity to flares burning nearby. We leave with the intention of coming back to the village the next day to observe the remediation process in action and to take a look at the village water treatment plant.