Engineers Without Borders, Impact, Latin America

A dug-out canoe used in Isla Popa, Panama, for local transport between islands and mainland.

In mid-November 2014, Carsten Floess — a geotechnical engineer with AECOM and an adjunct professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York — sent out an email requesting volunteer travel mentors for the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter at RPI.

The project required the installation of a rainwater collection system on Isla Popa, a remote island in the Caribbean off the coast of Panama. The exotic location and timing of the trip — early January 2015, a mere eight weeks from when the email was sent — caught my attention. Having installed water systems in Zimbabwe and Haiti over the past several years for humanitarian groups, the idea of volunteering for this project resonated with me. After getting approval from my wife and kids and buy-in from the RPI EWB board, I was committed. I knew no one from the organization and very little about the project, but for me, this was great. Usually, I was the one planning and organizing these projects, so to stand back and act as a technical resource was fantastic.

The students from RPI had been spending years planning this project. During three trips in as many years, they had gained the information they needed to install the system on the roof of one of the pavilions on the island’s small school. We met three times prior to the trip to get to know each other and for me to gain an understanding of the project. On paper, everything looked good, and everyone was excited.

Underhill_mentor_690x355RPI’s EWB team at the project site on Isla Popa, Panama (From left: Front row — Jesse Freitas and Anna Thonis. Back row — Ambar Mena, Tom Rebbecchi, Mike Kubista, Scott Underhill, Kyle Geisler and Paul Pagnozzi).

We arrived on the Isla Popa on a Tuesday afternoon with a barge full of sand, cement, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and two 600-gallon storage tanks. These materials were essential to the project, but weren’t available on the island, so we had to plan months in advance to purchase them on Isla Boca, the nearest island in Panama with a supply store. Once we purchased the materials, it took us three hours to transport them by barge to the island, where the community greeted us at the dock and carried all of the supplies up to the school — a good quarter mile up a hill. Over the next five days, we worked in intense sun and then rain, watching our work area transition from grass to mud. By the last day, as the tank was installed and the rain gutters put in place, we were covered in mud. And in the rain, we saw the first flush system get filled and then overflow into the collection tank, we were overjoyed! Job completed. No lessons learned? Hardly.

The students learned that materials in the U.S. are not the same quality as the materials in remote areas. When you have to drill pilot holes (small holes drilled before driving a screw into a piece of wood) to drive nails in, you know you are dealing with tough wood.

My favorite experience was watching a senior at RPI, who designed the PVC collection gutters, become frustrated because the PVC pipe was neither schedule 40 (pipe wall thickness measurement) nor fitting properly. Finally, he came to me and said, “What should I do?” I looked over to the four local hired helpers watching and said, “Ask them.” Within a few hours, we all stood back to see the gutters securely in place.

Underhill_catchment_690x355AECOM’s Scott Underhill stands in front of the newly installed rainwater collection system (first flush piping to the left).

Everyone on the trip learned so much. Many Americans don’t even know where their water comes from, but all of the people on the Isla Popa do. For them, water comes from a storage tank.

If you have any questions or comments about my experience in Isla Popa or my involvement with Engineers Without Borders, please leave a comment below. Feel free to also share your EWB and international volunteer experiences as well.


Underhill_Headshot_89x100_BWScott Underhill is a registered professional engineer in New York, and has 23 years of experience in the environmental remediation field. He is currently the program manager of AECOM’s New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s standby engineering contract.
LinkedIn: Scott Underhill

Originally published Feb 27, 2015

Author: Scott Underhill