Written by student Ellen Considine
Between May 15th and August 2nd , I was on an assessment trip with CU Boulder Engineers Without Borders. EWB is a volunteer-based, student-run organization that sends teams of four students to a developing country every summer and winter break, to either assess or implement an engineering project in a developing community. My first year at CU, I joined the EWB Nepal team; the university also has teams that work in Peru, Rwanda, and Paraguay. Our team this summer consisted of Andrew, a civil engineering student, Daniel, a chemical-and-biological engineering student, James, an astronomy student, and myself, an applied math and economics student. Our summer-long mentor was Bhupal, an employee of NCDC (the Namsaling Community Development Centre), CU EWB’s partner NGO in Nepal.
Since 2007, CU EWB Nepal has been working with communities in the Ilam District, in the eastern region of Nepal. This summer we began a new partnership with a community in the 2015 earthquake zone, Kalinchowk in the Dolakha District. Kalinchowk was absolutely devastated by the earthquakes, losing all 765 homes, a lot of livestock, and the little infrastructure they had. Since then, they have rebuilt and embarked on a number of development projects with the help of NCDC. All families now have at least temporary housing in tin structures, each equipped with a small solar panel (for lighting and charging a phone) and an improved cooking stove (a metal box which contains the flames and pipes wood smoke outside). NCDC has been helping to improve farming techniques, plant kitchen gardens with a small array of cash crops such as cauliflower and chilies, build improved cow sheds (permanent stone structures instead of flimsy lean-tos), facilitate community meetings, and construct community tap stands (water spigots). EWB’s role is to enhance NCDC’s work, by designing and implementing more technical projects. One goal of this assessment trip was to refine a list of potential projects for our team to implement in future years (we will be working in Kalinchowk for the next five to ten years). Another goal was to make a highly-accurate map of Kalinchowk that will facilitate EWB and NCDC projects and aid other development efforts. We also aimed to explore telecommunications opportunities in the valley and begin some educational workshops in the Kalinchowk schools.
We arrived in Kathmandu and spent a week meeting with a mix of governmental and nongovernmental organizations to discuss potential collaborations in environmental, health, earthquake reconstruction, education, and mapping efforts. We visited both Tribhuvan and Kathmandu University and met with professors and students in the geology, geomatics, mechanical and environmental engineering departments. The next three weeks we spent in Kalinchowk – a four-hour drive and a one-hour hike out from Charikot, the headquarters of the Dolakha District. In Kalinchowk, we stayed at the NCDC staff office, a two-room tin structure with a small kitchen in the central hallway. There is a small tap outside the office, which we used for washing dishes, clothes, and ourselves. We filtered and chlorinated all our water, and did not use toilet paper in the eastern toilet stall.
During that first block of time in Kalinchowk, we met with groups and individuals in the community, spread among the valley. To get to each meeting place, we hiked out between 30 minutes and 2 hours, using our smartphones to create a preliminary map of trails and important locations. At the meetings, we discussed each community’s current strengths and weaknesses, and what types of projects we could potentially help them to implement. Bhupal translated between English, Nepali, and the local Thami and Tamung languages. We met with teachers at the schools, government health post staff, farmers, herders, housewives, social mobilizers, and the newly elected local officials.
This summer marked the first time in twenty years that Nepal has held local elections. Previously, they had elected officials in Kathmandu, but central power dominated local governments. The elections were staggered across Nepal, so we were able to meet the elected officials in Kalinchowk before leaving for Ilam, where our mentor Bhupal would cast his vote. In Ilam, we visited the sites of all past EWB projects to evaluate their upkeep and functionality. For a few days, we also researched biogas generation systems in the neighboring Namsaling community. The household biogas generation systems take in cow (and/or human) excrement, and produce both biogas and compost slurry. The biogas is piped to a one-burner stove inside the home, and the slurry is used as fertilizer in the fields.
In Ilam, Namsaling and Kathmandu we were hosted by homestays. These were all multi-generation households, where we had the chance to talk to the adults and play with the children, and learn about Nepali culture. I especially enjoyed learning the Nepali language (spoken and written) and how to cook different forms of khana and khaja (main meals and mid-day snacks). For a few days of layover in Kathmandu while we waited for some documents to be processed by the government, I also took the opportunity to explore the city. I took a phone and a couple screen shots of a street map, and tried to see as much as possible by foot.
The last three weeks we spent back in Kalinchowk. The first week, we shared the NCDC office and surrounding buildings with twenty members of a community leadership training program that NCDC was hosting. I slept in one room with eight other women and an 18-month-year old. There was no free floor space! During that week, Andrew and I went out on reconnaissance hikes for the work that we would be doing with our mentor, John, when he arrived from the U.S. Daniel and James built model Fog Quest systems – finely-woven nets stretched across a frame of PVC pipe which are intended to collect clean water from the air. With John, we spent the last two weeks in Kalinchowk building a continually-operating reference station (CORS) and flying a drone. John’s work in geomatics over the past twenty years has taken him all over the world, where he has installed stations that provide high-accuracy GPS and meteorological data. The GPS stations are especially important in earthquake and landslide-prone areas, where their millimeter-accurate measurements can alert researchers of ground movements. The meteorological data can also indicate unusual amounts of precipitation, which can be quite dangerous, in either direction. Too much rain results in even more water-induced landslides than we saw happen during a normal monsoon season. Too little rain means that families who rely on their farm produce (the entire population of Kalinchowk) will starve.
The initial purpose of flying the drone was to create a design-level map of Kalinchowk, specifically of potential future project sites. This we did, despite the clouds and rain that threatened to engulf the drone and/or ruin our pictures each day. We had the privilege of working with both John and a graduate of Kathmandu University, Shangharsha, whose research in the geomatics department focused on drone applications to agricultural development. For the last six days in Kalinchowk, we were joined by two geology students from another international study program. With Alisha and Alex, we took some drone footage of large landslide areas in the valley, that can be used for both a geologic analysis and documentation for the local government on the current landslide hazards in Kalinchowk.