Spanish Doubloons, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mountain that Eats Men and EIA

Posted on: August 26, 2010

This is a long story, I’ll make it as short as, well as short as I can make it.

When the Spanish conquered Bolivia they found so much gold, and in particular silver in Bolivia, they could not AFFORD to ship the gold and silver bullion back to Spain. Can you imagine? Their solution was to build the only European mint off of European soil in Potosi Bolivia. There they made the famous spanish doubloons (coins), but them on llamas to Lima, on boats to west Panama. On donkeys to Panama City and then on to the Spanish galleons who were famously raided by the Pirates of the Caribbean.

The mining process was brutal, killing an estimated 8 million men, leading to the naming of the richest hill in Potosi (Cerro Rico) the “Mountain that eats men”.

And it left behind hundreds of abandoned mines that leak incredibly dangerous water. EIA in conjunction with the Penn State University school of Public Health took blood samples of children living downstream from some of mines found dehabilitating levels of Cadmium and Lead in their blood. It was also true for the potatoes which were irrigated with this deadly water.

The University of Oklahoma, St. Francis University, Tomas Frias University in Potosi, the Department (state) of Potosi, Oklahoma Rotary Clubs and Engineers In Action have been working for 2-3 years developing a pilot project to clean up the water using a passive water treatment (click here to see more about the project on this website).

This is a $700,000 project, when you include all of the in-kind donations. And EIA is providing, at no charge to the project, (your donations pay his salary), Joe Alvarez to be the project manager throughout its construction.

FINALLY, YESTERDAY, the Governor of Potosi has said he will sign an agreement to provide the heavy equipment necessary to move the limestone and dig the ponds. We hope to sign the agreements before I leave, and start moving limestone within a few weeks.

So yesterday was a great day to celebrate.

Join us in our joy, as we begin this incredible project that rights a 500 year old wrong.

From One ready to serve those in need, to another

David Stephenson

Executive Director, Engineers In Action

PS: For more on this project go to:

And How’s That Working for ya? Throwing away Billions on disposable good deeds.

Posted on: August 23, 2010

 As I was getting on my flight to Miami, I encountered a Church (non-Methodist) team that was headed for Haiti. Turns out they were going down to hand drill shallow water wells and put in hand pumps for the people. They had 8 pumps on board the plane.

 When they found out what I was doing headed to Bolivia, we got to talking. Turns out the pumps have a really neat simple design, with only one or two parts that’s not available in Haiti.

 “Ummmm what happens if one of those parts break?”

 “Oh they shouldn’t.. And if they do, they can get someone to contact us and we’ll be happy to replace them.”

 “Someone? Do you have anyone who is responsible for maintaining and repairing the pumps when they are in place?”

 “Sure, We have church members down there who will  go out and check on them.”

“Are they paid people, professional folks, engineers?”

“No, but during our 5 day trip we are going to show them how to install repair and maintain them. And they are good church folks whom I’m sure will follow through. We don’t like to pay salaries. Then people become dependent upon us, and we have to raise that money year after year after year.  We did have some problems a few years ago.”

“What happened?

 “Well, the (denomination) was the largest drillers of water wells in Haiti about 5 years ago. We had drilling rigs and sophisticated hand pumps and electrical pumps. We were doing a lot of work. But then we turned it over to the (local Church) . They were supposed to maintain the project, maintain the wells and charge enough to actually make money. But the whole thing fell apart in less than two years.”

 “A lot of money wasted”

 “ Yeah, a lot, probably over a $1million. We believe that bringing them water is extremely important, a life or death issue. And we want to show them our love. And, I guess, it’s good even if it only lasts a short while.  I just hope this time it lasts a little longer and works better . . . . . . . . . .. . “

 I fought the urge to be Doctor Phil and ask, “And how’s that been working for ya???”

 Millions, billions of dollars thrown away because of the lack of a sustainability plan and the resistance to supporting the salaries of professional people who can maintain and repair what has been put in place. In the U.S. we live in a consumable, disposable world. Why should we be surprised that that same attitude takes place when most groups go to the Developing World. Build them something, and let them use it. We feel good and magnanimous.

 But don’t ask us for salaries. Don’t ask us for commitments. Don’t ask us to give or support beyond one year, because we are an A.D.D. society and we lose interest real fast. There just might be some place else that is more exotic and more fun to go to. And if (when) it breaks, maybe we’ll give them another one, if we haven’t lost interest and moved on to the next “sexy” area in the world to ‘do good’.

 This is the problem with fund raising for EIA. It’s fun and it makes you feel good to have a picture of the water well you paid for. You paid for it and its done. There’s the picture on the wall, hanging like an honor or medal that you’ve won. But giving for salaries. Giving for engineers and accountants to make sure the blankety blank thing continues to work well, is just plain boring.

 Well cheers for boring. Cheers for sticking it out. Cheers for not abandoning these villages once a project is completed. And cheers to all of you wonderful people who support the methodical boring work of Engineers In Action.

Thank you so much.

                                           From One Learning the Importance of Sustainability, to another,

                                                        David Stephenson

                                                          Exeutive Director, EIA

Thoughts on 2010 Board Retreat

Posted on: August 9, 2010

Most mornings, since I’ve gotten my strange new job, before dawn, I get up and do a private worship service. I sit on my back porch, turn on our little fountain so I can hear the water, the Living Water splash over my life; and I light a fire in our chimnea; even in the heat of this week. I sing. I read a chapter in the Bible. I pray. And God comes to me.

This morning, we were talking about the EIA Board retreat, when one of the little burning logs in the chimnea rolled away from the others, and stopped burning. “This is what happens when you go it alone, Dave. You may be the brightest burning log, but without others, your flame will die out.”

What an inspiration you were to me last Saturday. 15 very busy people, from 3 states; and several more from 3 more states who would have been there except for very significant scheduling problems; came together and spent a whole day, learning, planning dreaming of EIA. There have been so many times that I felt alone, battling all by myself to keep EIA going. But EIA is maturing. Your vision out strips mine:

 A concensus that EIA is here to stay, long after I’m gone; and our need to start an Endowment.

Adding engineers and interns.

Adding projects.

And increasingly you have taken the load off me. 5 committees met at once, and I didn’t attend any of them! I spent that hour walking around, eating, and resting. Aaron insisting that all committee reports go to Rebecca and SHE will compile them and send them to me. Rebecca insisting on taking the newsprint so SHE can type it up to send out. The Finance, Operations, Publicity, Board Development, and “Whatever” committees all developing amazing ideas and visions for EIA.

I’m . . . . . . ummmm overwhelmed and thankful.

In the next week or two, Rebecca will compile all of this and we will send it out to you; and put it on the website for everyone to see. But today, I just want to say thank you. . . . .  .  You keep my fire burning!!!!

David Stephenson, Executive Director, Engineers In Action

Engineers in Action Featured In Bolivian News

Posted on: July 31, 2010

Hey everyone, we made the news!

The local television station in Tarija, Bolivia came out and interviewed our own EIA engineer Milton de la Cruz and Dr. Richard Stephenson of EWB-S&T regarding the Erquis Sud project. This is a joint project of EIA, Habitat For Humanity/Bolivia and EWB-S&T. Milton has been working on this project for about 3 years and it is really taking off now.

The video begins with EIA engineer Milton de la Cruz and then goes to Dr. Richard Stephenson, Faculty Advisor, EWB-Missouri University of Science and Technology. See below the video for a translation of their dialogue.

Translation by Jacob Anderson:

Milton: For Erquis, I’m with Dr. Rick (Stephenson) and students from Missouri University of Science and Technology who are constructing a potable water system, a gift of potable water to the community of Eucaliptos for the houses that were constructed by Hatibtat (for Humanity) for families that could never have the resources to build these basic services. For financing, we have funds obtained by the students and the professors of MST. Actually, directly, we’re working with 30 families, but we’re projecting 100 (families).

Dr. Rick Stephenson: (talking in english)
Community Leader: This project, long-term, more or less, we’re projecting in 2 to 4 years, that we will have services like potable water, sanitary systems, electricity, practially, these three basic services. Practically, this is an example, to the local authorities that we have asked for help and haven’t got anything, thank God, we’ve found this NGO, that this would be an example on how the authorities can help other communities.

65% of Milton’s total support came from a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The remainder has to be paid from donations from folks like you. We rely on small donations of $25, $50, $100 and $200 to make up the additional $3,000-$4,000 that we need to fund Milton’s position.

Won’t you consider making a gift to this important work?
Milton and the people of Erquis Sud Thank you!

Chiquitano EIA/Rotary/FCBC Safe Water Project

Posted on: July 2, 2010

Project Update Chiquitano Forest Safe Water Project

Explanation of This project at:

Most Recent Report June 12-17, 2010During the week of June 12th to the 17th, 2 water pumps were repaired and a third was inspected, near the town of Concepción. The 2 wells that were worked on are now functional and can dispense potable water. The people in the communities where the wells are located appeared very happy to have access to clean water.

Repairing Pumps

In the first community, San Lucas, the pump was functional and a community leader confirmed that the pumped had been repaired 6 months ago. In the second community, San Miguel de la Cruz, the water pump barely dispensed water. As a result, the cylinder was removed and new seals and springs were installed. After this maintenance, the well was able to pump water at a much faster rate. Finally, in the community of Monte Cristo, the pump was not functional and could not pump water. In order to understand the problem, the tubes, rods, and cylinder were removed from the well. The rods were found to be rusted and the cylinder had rusted springs and corroded seals. These parts were replaced for new ones, and after the pump was reassembled, it was able to dispense water. In conclusion, 3 water pumps have been inspected and maintained so that all 3 are currently operational.

Community Response

Community members were instrumental in work this week, and appeared very grateful to have their wells functional again. In all of the communities that weʼve visited, community members have contributed their time and effort. In the places in which weʼve serviced the water pumps, at least 3 men in each community were willing to assist in the work for the entire day. Often there were men, women, and children that would gather around the well and help in any way that they could.

One women, in Monte Cristo, brought us boiled eggs as a gesture of thanks as she said that this water well meant that she didnʼt have to walk 200 meters for water. In another community, as we finished working on a water well, women and children came to the well with buckets to immediately get potable water.

These small actions suggested to me how much the community valued their functional water well.

Approximate Community Population

San Miguel de la Cruz ~12 familias

Monte Cristo ~27 familias


There are 2 more functional water wells near the town of Concepción as a result of well maintenance last week. In general, the pump problems consisted of rusted rods and corroded seals. On the non-technical side of the project, the mayor of Concepción may have little awareness of the project. As far as the community members near the water wells are concerned, they have been willing to help in well repairs and were very grateful for functional water pumps.

  • To improve borehole and water well installation of wells in the Chiquitano
  • Maintain and test the existing wells
  • Rehabilitate Abandoned Wells
  • Create Community Maps for future Water distribution systems utilizing EWB Teams
  • Train Municipal Water Technicians in Pump Maintenance and Repair
  • Put additional hand pumps on “open-casing” bore holes.

This project alone has the potential to bring potable water to 60,000 people in Bolivia.

Afnan (Tower) & Jacob (ground) repairing hand pump in San Lucas

The Biggest Challenge: Sustainability

Posted on: June 18, 2010

When I first thought of EIA, I thought the most important thing we’d be doing is providing logistics for teams coming to Bolivia. I was wrong. Our greatest gift is sustainability. We make sure the damn things work over the long haul.

Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing development in the Developing World is sustainability. Bolivia and the rest of the Developing World are littered with well-meaning, well-designed, and well-constructed projects that don’t work and are abandoned as quickly as a year after they’ve been built. We come across someall the time in the campo of Bolivia. EVERYONE says that they have solved the Sustainability Problem. Most organizations train a local guy or a few local folks in how to do basic maintenance of the infrastructure.

But here’s the problem: Who do they train? Inevitably they pick someone who is young, aggressive, and intelligent. The problem with that is, what happens to a young, aggressive, intelligent person in these remote villages? They don’t stay! They move to the city to find work and a better life for them and their family. And they take the knowledge and sustainability with them.

EIA’s solution has been to work with Community Water or Sanitation Committees. But we’ve encountered the same problem. The best committee people often leave for work in the city.

EIA is only 3 years old and we are still learning, sometimes from our mistakes. Increasingly the only solution we can see, at least initially, is to go back time and time again to check on the project, fix what needs to be fixed, teach – yet again- the local folks on how to properly use the infrastructure, and teach yet another group of folks on basic maintenance and upkeep. We believe that if we can do that regularly, over a 3-5 year period, then eventually the community will “get it” and it will move into self-sustainability. But even then the community will need back-up for major repairs.

We are developing a Sustainability Plan for each project. It includes: How we approach new communities regarding projects, Expectations of our EWB, Rotary, and other partners; the engineering design; the ‘buy-in’ by the community; Ceremonial transfer of ownership; Immediate and frequent follow-up and community training by EIA the first year; Gradually decreasing frequency of follow-up and training over the next 2-4 years. And perpetual back-up for communities over the coming decades.

I’d be interested in any comments you have about Sustainability and EIA’s role in that. Just fill out the stuff below and send them to me. We are still learning.

Your Sustaining Partner

David Stephenson, Executive Director, EIA

Special Thanks to the Family of Grace Schmid

Posted on: April 23, 2010

The family of Grace Schmid made a generous $10,000 donation to Engineers In Action from her estate this past month. The donation will go toward the salary and administrative costs of an engineer for EIA.

Grace Schmid lived an incredible life. Her parents were Swiss farmers who came to the US at the end of 19th century. Grace was born in the US in 1903 and passed away in January of 2009 at the age of 106!

Grace was born on a farm, but didn’t stay there. She went to college in the early 20s and graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Nebraska.  Grace later went on to the University of Chicago where she earned her Masters in social work. At the time of her death, she was the oldest living alumni of both universities!

She began her work in Wyoming with the Department of Social Services.  During WWII Grace worked on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, providing care and support for the poorest and most desperately in need persons in the state.  Grace advanced in the ranks of the Department of Social Services and eventually was named the Director of the State Agency, a position she held until her retirement.

Retirement from the State of Wyoming didn’t mean she was going to slow down. As a single woman, she had the opportunity to travel – and she loved to travel. She had a passport in the 1920s and traveled the world before WWII broke out. When she retired in 1945, she and another single woman decided to drive the newly built Alaska Highway. The “highway” turned out to be a dirt/mud road cut through the Canadian Forest. In several places, GIs had to push them out and through the mud. Grace’s last trip to Alaska was when she was 94 years old. She didn’t stop driving a car until she reached her 101st birthday!

Grace was too active to stay retired. She did several other jobs and eventually bought and ran her own small apartment complex. She managed that apartment complex until she was 102 years old! At 102, she finally decided it was time to retire!

Grace obviously had a great heart for those in need. She spent the majority of her working life supporting and encouraging the neediest folks in Wyoming. She spent a significant portion of her resources helping family members to go to college.

Grace Schmid’s combined interests of helping those in need and her love of world travel inspired her family to share a portion of her estate with Engineers In Action to help improve the quality of life for the poorest people in South America.

EIA is honored to be the recipient of this generous donation from this remarkable woman.

Thank you to the family of Grace Schmid.

Music Of Bolivia Concerts

Posted on: February 26, 2010

Engineers In Action is sponsoring a Concert & Banquet Tour to raise funds for the four EIA engineers in Bolivia (who make from $450-600 a month). EIA facilitates projects in potable water, sanitation, irrigation, mine waste water clean-up, bridges and other basic infrastructure projects in remote areas of Bolivia… LEARN MORE