February 27, 2018

Spencer Meyer ’19 was on top of the world over winter break – at least that’s what it felt like at 13,000 feet on the Bolivian altiplano. Meyer and other members of SMU’s Engineers Without Borders continued work on a multiyear effort to provide a reliable source of clean water to the  village of Llojlla Grande, Bolivia. It is among the 80 projects SMU community members can support on March 8 during Mustangs Give Back, SMU’s annual 24-hour funding challenge.

Mustangs Give Back donations in 2016 helped SMU’s Engineers Without Borders start construction on the clean water system in the small community, located about two hours south of the capital city of La Paz. The village currently relies on easily contaminated shallow wells pumping water that is high in salt, manganese and arsenic.

Donations to the project on March 8 will help the team make further progress by completing water towers, piping and a tap system.

Over winter break, Meyer and fellow student Mauricio Sifuentes ’19 spent a day supervising the well installation before they were joined be other team members and spent 10 days building a well house and footings for a water tower.

On the right is a slide show featuring some of the amazing photos he took on the work trip and posted on Instagram. “No talent is required to take sweet shots in Bolivia,” he said.

Back on campus, Meyer answered a few questions for SMU Magazine:

Your majors, class year and hometown?

Mechanical engineering and math, Class of 2019, Half Moon Bay, California

Who from SMU participated in the project?

Hebah Jafferey ’20, civil engineering and human rights major
Alec Maulding ’18, mechanical engineering major
Mauricio Sifontes ’19, computer engineering major
Sam Walker ’20, mechanical engineering major
Madison Woeltje ’18, civil engineering and math major

Who were your advisors on the trip?

We had two professional advisors travel with us. Larry Bentley, electrical engineering, and Allen Savoie, civil engineering.

What was your role in the project?

I was the senior medical officer for this trip. I am now the project lead for next year’s trip.

Was this your first trip to Bolivia for the project?

This was my first trip to Bolivia and the project’s third trip:
Trip 1 in 2015 – Assessment trip
Trip 2 in 2017 – Implementation trip: drilled one well and poured one water tower footing.
Trip 3 in 2018 – Drilled the second well, poured three water tower footings and built the well houses.
Estimated project completion date is 2020. If all goes as planned, we’ll make two more trips.

What is the village’s current water source?

Currently they pull water out of the ground with hand dug wells. Cattle is their main livestock, so they constantly must provide water for the cows, too. The average milking cow (according to Larry) drinks 22 gallons of water a day. So, as you can imagine, that’s a lot of hauling buckets of water out of a hole. We hope this system will make their lives significantly easier.

What are your favorite memories of the experience?

  • Playing soccer with the kids in the community at sunset. The kids were around 12 to 14 years old and only spoke Spanish, but that didn’t matter. They kicked our a– and won 6–1. It didn’t help that we were playing at 13,000 feet.
  • Everybody in the community came out to help us dig holes for the water tower footings. Each tower footing was 20x9x3-feet. We couldn’t find a cement mixing truck in Bolivia for rent, so we had to use hand mixers. In three days we made four cement trucks worth of cement with two hand mixers. The women, children and elderly were digging harder than we could keep up with. There was a total language barrier. They didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Spanish, yet we were still able to accomplish a huge amount of work together. We worked with the community from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day to dig and mix concrete. We had no problem sleeping after working that hard!
  • Seeing a new aspect of life. It might sound stereotypical, but going without electronics or showering for 10 days can really give you a new perspective on how lucky we are in America.

Will you be going back to work on the project?

We will hopefully be returning next January in 2019, but that depends if we raise enough funds for supplies. We heavily rely on our donors for support. This coming year we plan to install the water towers and wire up the pumps. We are currently deciding between running the pumps off solar panels or having a Bolivian power company install a transformer closer to the pump for us.

What have your learned through your participation in the Bolivian water project?

  • This project has allowed me to use my engineering experience I’ve developed at SMU and apply it to real-world problems.
  • Things are always easier on paper.
  • We are extremely lucky to live in America.

Read more about Mustangs Give Back.