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Rutgers Film Bureau deserves recognition

Letter to the Editor

Congratulations to the Rutgers Film Bureau on their Mid-Atlantic Emmy nomination for their documentary, “Thailand Untapped: The Global Reach of Engineers Without Borders.” Tuesday’s issue of The Daily Targum featured an article titled “Student documentary archived by film bureau,” which recognized the documentary, but because this was an article in the Science section I thought more attention should be given to the film’s engineering project, which cannot be simply summarized in a few sentences. The author calls Engineers Without Borders an organization that “sends students abroad” — really though, it’s much more than that. It’s an organization that writes grants and works with professional engineers, non-governmental organizations and local community members to ultimately implement a sustainable engineering solution.

As part of Engineers Without Borders-USA Rutgers chapter, I travelled last month with five other students to Kolunje, Kenya, a rural village in western Kenya, without electricity or a reliable clean water source. Our goal was to drill a well. Sounds simple enough. How many hundreds of thousands of wells do we have in the United States? But we also had big plans for future trips — once we hit the water we would install an electric pump, an elevated tank and work with the community to establish a fee structure so the system could be self-sustaining.

We eagerly arrived. After being delayed by the Kenyan government’s permit policy, by a late contractor and discrepancies about the correct location, we drilled the well. Three days and ten thousand dollars later, we were left with a hole 160 meters down into the great green earth and no water. We blamed the “RU Screw” following us almost 8,000 miles away and hashtagged our thanks to Obama. But, really, the simple science was that we were testing a hypothesis, and despite the arrows we found pointing to water, the world did not behave as we predicted. Along with our own internal heartbreak, we were facing challenges such as: community relations, financial concerns and ethical dilemmas about whether or not to try drilling again. As we explored the community more and spoke with residents, we began to hear about different non-profit organizations who’d worked in the community previously and their stories: a drill rig broken in the middle of the job or a tank that started to leak or a hand-pump well that dried out. The number of failed projects far exceeded the successful ones.

It’s great to be able to cut, edit and string together these types of projects into short films, but, realistically, they’re never so simple or so clearly a success or failure. For example, our trip failed to yield water, but because of our project, electrical service was extended to the community’s hospital and two schools. The problems facing nonprofit engineering projects in developing countries come and go but never fully disappear, and long-term sustainability is the Holy Grail.

While in Kenya, all we really wanted — aside from a hot shower and Wi-Fi connection — was to be able to make a lasting difference in people’s lives by providing a source of clean water. I was hoping for a solution like the one found in this documentary — a few challenges along the way but all smiles and clean water at the end — one that I could wrap up with a nice shiny red bow, pack into my carry-on and post on the refrigerator back home. What we got was a humbling jerrycan full of reality and a new motivation to move forward, join the ranks of successful projects and find a new plan for a water source for Kolunje.

Colleen Thiersch is a School of Engineering senior majoring in biomedical engineering with a minor in English.

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