Exciting things are in store! With 2015 under way, here are five things coming up:

  • New co-workers. The IEMB (Evangelic Methodist Church of Bolivia) elected new national leaders, and I am grateful for these partners to work more effectively and efficiently to selflessly partner with the poor to meet basic needs. Also, Engineers In Action will be hiring two new engineers, one of whom will start next week.
  • A project in Carani. Last year, EWB-Idaho (Engineers Without Borders) was in Bolivia for another project when they unexpectedly had a couple extra days. The same week, a miscommunication led the community Carani to believe I was bringing a team of engineers to work on their water system. In this case, two wrongs made a right, and EWB-Idaho visited Carani. Now, they have a long-term partnership to improve current infrastructure and install water distribution pipes. One graduate student from Idaho is even writing her thesis about the project, giving us a great head start on finding the best solution.

Though I told the community we were bringing our own food and sleeping bags, they still prepared 3 meals a day and walked up to an hour in the dark to bring wool blankets for us, their guests.

  • The Konani project is coming to a successful close. We have done an in-depth technical analysis and conceptual design of how to improve water provision. We installed large tubes to cross a major highway, and made other small modifications. I have been working since 2012 to consolidate two separate water administrations, physically combining the systems and improving operation and maintenance. That finally has happened! Now, a unified system is operated by a trained water committee, with technical and financial support from municipal (county) engineers. The committee, with help from the municipality, already made improvements to the infrastructure, and will finish the work of building a new tank and installing more pipes as recommended by our team of US engineers. This is what we aim for! Outsiders offered expertise that wasn’t readily available locally, and local actors are making the final decisions and carrying out the majority of the work. Now I get to become a background supporter, as the community runs, maintains, and improves their own water supply.

A community leader signing the agreement in which the church donates the water system to the community, so that the trained water committee can operate one unified system.

  • New projects. Because of the project in Konani, the Municipality has asked Engineers In Action to partner with them in additional communities. The municipality of Sica Sica is part of a national pilot project to provide 100% coverage of water and sanitation by 2025, achieved by investing in experienced personnel to oversee the work and focusing on capacity building, community participation, and a service-oriented approach. This means that one-time projects are only part of the bigger picture to make sure water is delivered as a public service every day to everyone. EIA is thrilled to play a part, and hopes to contribute a vision of detailed up-front analysis in order to find the best long-term solutions. In November and December I visited many potential partner communities, and we found a few where we will start new projects this year. They are highly motivated, organized, willing to work together with visiting engineers and have great need for water and other basic necessities. I will also visit more potential partner communities in the following months.
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A girl collecting a sip of water in a used plastic bag, in Murmuntani- a small community where we are evaluating the feasibility of a potable water project. Photo credit: Adam Kirchner

  • Research partnerships. I have helped coordinate a project between a Bolivian and US university to make improved wind-powered water pumps from recycled materials, for small-scale irrigation. The prototype has been built, is being tested in the lab, and soon will be ready to place in a community. The goal is to improve the design enough that it can be replicated across Bolivia, sold at a low cost and distributed to rural farmers by a small start-up. Based on the initial success, a new larger partnership is underway regarding cyclical human/environmental systems. I’m coordinating the visit of two US professors in February for this project.

A Mechanical Engineering professor, the Director of Engineers In Action, and me with an early prototype of the wind pump.

I love my work, if you haven’t gathered that. Perhaps unfortunately, I love it so much that I want to learn to do it better and have applied for graduate studies. I still don’t have a date for leaving Bolivia, but it’s possible it will be in 2015. We are starting to recruit for my position- if someone comes well before I leave, all the better. If you know a great candidate, please email me at lauren.butler [at] engineersinaction [dot] org. Meanwhile, I have plenty to keep me busy!

P.S. Remember my previous post about unique Bolivian fruits? This picture of my snack the other day might trump all the rest:



Wait, Don’t Help

I got a desperate phone call from Konani, a town where I have a water project.

“It broke! The system isn’t working, we can’t pump water to the houses! Can you come and help?”

After getting more details, I politely declined. Truth is, I could have arrived the following day with my voltmeter and tracked down the problem. It would be either electrical or a failed pump, because a few months earlier our tests showed the well itself is healthy. I could have quickly identified the problem component, contracted a technician if needed, and found money for the solution.

Instead, I told them, “The project money is not for routine maintenance; that is the responsibility of the community.” I know they have the capability of replacing a pump on their own- they’ve done it before. I suggested they find out how the previous administrators paid for the last pump and who installed it (putting into practice community resilience theory: how did they overcome problems in the past?). With that, I ended the conversation.

That’s right: I intentionally let families’ water taps run dry.

Now, if it had been a matter of life-and-death, I would have tried to help ASAP; but this town has a second water well. Families with dry taps will just have to walk a couple blocks to get water until repairs are finished.  Maintenance is the most important part of a water system, and that’s why I shouldn’t do it. I’m not in the community long-term. If outsiders jump in to fix every maintenance problem, the community will never become self-sufficient. They need to see that I won’t post an emergency blog post asking my readers to donate towards a new pump; rather, the water administrators need to collect enough money, monthly, from system users to save for big things like a new pump.

So I didn’t “save the day”. I waited.

And kept waiting.

It’s been two months. Major test of patience.

Slowly but surely, the local leaders have made progress. They tracked down the technician who replaced the pump 13 years ago. They’ve figured out how they will get most of the money for a new pump.

And YESTERDAY the technician brought his equipment to Konani, took out the old pump, and tested and diagnosed it! The waiting has been worth it for me, because people in the community are taking the lead. And in the future, they will now be better equipped to deal with this the next time it comes up. And hopefully they’ve been reminded to collect a couple extra cents from the families for a cushion fund.


Julian Calle and the pastor Justo Catacora. Along with Feliciano Fabrica (not pictured), they are responsible for yesterday’s achievement of hiring a technician to come to Konani. Picture from March, with quinoa fields in bloom in the background.

I’ve played a supporting role. I saved them money by explaining that they don’t need to have the technician rehabilitate the well. I cross-checked with other companies to make sure they are getting a fair price. I’m helping identify a new, reliable pump that is 50% more powerful: they can sustainably pump water out at a faster rate because the water flows in so quickly from the aquifer. And to show that this slight increase in capital cost is worth it, in order to provide much more water, we will contribute a small amount of money from the project fund.

It may be slow progress, but I think it qualifies for the much overused s-word: “sustainable”. I don’t know about you, but whenever I want to make a change in my life (eat healthy, time management, etc.), slow change is the kind that sticks. I can drastically change and eat mostly veggies for a day or two, but who am I kidding- that’s not sustainable for a sweet tooth like me. Rather, each year I try to eat more good things and less bad things. It’s almost imperceptible change.

Communities are often the same. Small changes are gradually woven into the fabric of life. Any big or seemingly sudden project work, in order to have long-term impact, is connected to years of patient preparation and years of follow-up.



Hit the Ground, Conserve Water

I had a great time in the U.S.; at the end of this post are various photos. But first, let me tell you about my crazy first week back in Bolivia, and something crazy I’m doing this weekend that you can do too!

After my last trip to the U.S., when I returned to Bolivia I wrote in my blog post that I “hit the ground running” in January. I was wrong. This time, I actually did that. On my first day back, I hit the ground. Literally. I slipped in the rain then had to get X-rays on my wrist. I also ran a 10k (organized to promote water conservation), 4 days after arriving to 12,000 ft of elevation.  Fortunately, I made it through without hitting the ground while I was running.


And figuratively, I fulfilled the idiom by traveling 4 times to Konani: 8 bus rides, 2 flat tires, many long, uncomfortable hours… and 20 meters of tubing installed under the new road! This construction was supposed to have happened before I left, then the day after I left, but then some of the work got so postponed that I was already back to oversee it! These delays are usually frustrating but this time worked out in my favor.


The municipality (county) government contributed the use of the backhoe and operator, free of charge, for the excavation.

placing tubes

Installing the casing, or protective outer tube, for the water line that will pass through later.

As for this weekend, I’ll be “fasting” from excessive water use. Last year, during Engineers In Action’s “We Fast So They Can Drink” fundraiser, I fasted and also limited my household water use. I invite you to read about that interesting experience in my blog post “It’s my plumbing’s fault I failed“. This weekend is take two; on Saturday and Sunday I will limit my water use to 75 liters (20 gallons) each day. Will you consider joining me?

  • See if you can use only 20 gal/day; here’s a simple table I made called “Counting Water Use” that makes it easy to keep track. I recommend counting on a normal day, then trying to limit it, for comparison. (If that link doesn’t work, try this one or email me.)
  • Or, you could simply count the number of times you use running water, and come back and post about your experience.
  • This weekend, consider fasting and/or praying for Bolivia, for these projects, and for my ministry.
  • Consider sponsoring me during this “fast” or becoming a monthly supporter.

And with that, here’s what I was up to in the U.S.

IMG_2037Went to a conference about water technologies for developing countries. I learned a lot from the 200+ experts from around the world and gave a presentation on applying “asset-based” development practices to water projects.


There was also a day of hands-on training, where I helped operate a small drill rig and learn a manual well-drilling method.

wedding pic

Was in my friend’s wedding. What a party- congratulations Damian and Annalise Hume!

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Went to Minneapolis and met with many friends and supporters.

apple picking

My sister and brother came home for a weekend and we all went apple picking.


Some of the month I worked more than full time, between fundraising and communicating back to Bolivia. But I did find a couple days to relax.

13000 Words’ Worth of Pictures

It has been quite some time since my last post, so I have a lot to share.  From a road trip across salt deserts with my family, visiting a community that walks marathons to get water, and celebrating the Soltice with 2,000 Aymarans… it would take a lot of words to explain, so it’s probably better said through pictures.


A professional surveyer from the U.S. came all the way to Bolivia to do a week-long training for the Engineers In Action staff.


I visited a community on the border with Peru, called Carani, that requested help from the church in improving their water infrastructure. This is a contaminated spring that currently serves as a drinking water source for these 30 families.

I ran some tests on the spring water, and found high levels of contamination. In the 1 mL sample above, each red dot represents the presence of bacteria that is harmful to humans.


A science writer from the Rotary International newsletter, visiting my project Konani to do a story on the history of bringing water to this community.


Following a request from the engineers desiging the project in Konani, I built simple Electrical Depth Sounder from local materials, to facilitate the testing of deep water wells.


When the Missouri-based Engineers Without Borders team came to work on their project in the south of Bolivia, I travelled with them to help with translation. The team and the community are like extended family to each other. Everyone had a great time working together to put in the water lines; even the kids in the community pitched in!


My whole family got to visit, and we got to visit the Salt Flats (above), Lake Titicaca, and see a tradional parade in La Paz. It was so sweet to have all of us together, and for them to see where I live!


My brother had such a good time that he decided to stay four more weeks in Bolivia! We were on a walk and saw a family working in their field. We asked what they were doing, and they invited us to join! These are sun-dried and freeze-dried potates called Chuños, and we stepped on them to remove the skins.


The Aymaran New Year is the winter solstice (June 21, summer solstice in the N hemisphere). To say goodbye to the old, dying sun of the past year, my brother, Mariel (my roommate and co-worker), and I had a lovely evening overlooking the lake.


Along with thousands of Aymarans, we woke up before dawn to welcome the sun of the new year. We all hiked up to the sacred Horca del Inca, or Incan Gallows, which is actually a pre-Incan astronomical observatory and ritual site.


As the first rays crest the horizon, we welcome the new sun’s energy by greeting it with the “personal horizons” created by our hands.


On the horizontal rock beam towards the left of the picture, there is a dot of light. The suns’ rays shine through a natural key-hole in one rock and onto this beam, only on the morning of the winter solstice. The belief is that if the sun is unblocked by clouds at this moment, there will be a good harvest that year. Guess I can look forward to more great quinoa, chuños, and choclo (a large-grain corn) in the market this year!


There had been rumors that CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden was on the Bolivian president’s airplane, so many countries wouldn’t let the plane land. In response, 4th of July celebrations were canceled in Bolivia. But I still got to share the holiday with the young adult group at my church, with fireworks, sparklers, and red white and blue deserts.

We Fast So They Can Drink

Every year, supporters of Engineers In Action fast for 36 hours and raise money for EIA’s projects. I’ll be fasting this Friday night through Sunday morning, and I invite any to fast along with me, support this work financially, and/or pray for me and for EIA’s work during that time. 

This week I heard that in Konani, the location of my first project, there are a few people who have to limit their water use to only 10 liters/day. In some initial calculations, the goal of our project will be to supply 70 liters/day per person. “How much do I use?” I wondered. A single toilet flush can be 10 L. In the U.S., the average indoor daily use is 350 L/person (source: USGS), and I may be close to that even while living in Bolivia.

So I was inspired, in addition to fasting from food, to LIMIT my water use to 70 L/day, to raise money that will PROVIDE the people in Konani with 70 L/day. I expect this to be eye-opening in many ways, and will share about the experience afterwards.

Thanks for your support. Please consider (1) sponsoring me in this fast, at $5, $10, or even $1 per hour, (2) fasting along with me in solidarity with people living with extreme hunger and with limited access to basic resources like water, and (3) marking in your calendar to pray for me and with me during these days. For spiritual reasons why I’m fasting and some specific prayer points, please visit the prayer  page.