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Engineer Without Borders shares experience in Africa assisting with water project

Elizabeth Jones

Human impact on the global environment is becoming significantly pronounced as the world population continues to multiply.

But a nonprofit humanitarian organization partnering with developing countries is working to improve quality of life through sustainable engineering projects.

That's a message Elizabeth Jones "brought home," having recently traveled to the African Republic of Mali as an Engineer Without Borders.

Jones, daughter of Ellis and Cynthia Jones, is a civil and environmental engineer working for an engineering firm in Boulder, Colo. Her Engineers Without Borders team headed to the Dark Continent to assist with a sanitation and water drainage project in Nioni, Mali.

Engineers Without Borders was asked to address the problem by a member of the Peace Corps. The international volunteer had identified the sanitation issue in the early 1990s.

While canals are maintained and water is relatively clean, a collector is a natural rainwater gully, Jones explained. Running through the center of town, the collector is supposed to flow into a canal drain six kilometers downstream.

But lack of maintenance has caused considerable degradation, as reflected in comparison photos in 1992 and the present.

Obstructions - plastic and other trash - are causing flooding.

A pump, clogged with non-indigenous plants, adds to the problem. And the 33 bridges along the collector, most of them clogged, also obstruct water movement.

Residents with donkey carts will pick up trash and haul it to the existing landfill, but the $1.50 monthly charge is a considerable bite in the average budget. Photos show garbage strewn throughout the city.

Niono, Jones explained, was developed as an agricultural base for large fields. It was not intended for a settlement; 60,000 people reside in the area.

"It's a major engineering challenge," Jones told her audience. "Our objective was to find resources at the local level."

But their first mission was diplomacy - "meeting with town elders and everyone important in a 10-mile radius," a time-consuming duty. They were housed in former Dutch barracks.

The engineers soon learned the task ahead was more than a drainage design project. The venture was expanded to include sanitation improvements and education, a challenge exacerbated by cows wandering through town.

"Our aim is to take a phased approach," Jones said. "We were not there to fix the problem, but to gather information, to work with them. We are involving the community in solving its needs."

Children, she said, were a key audience, to raise their awareness to the problem and solutions that may exist.

The locals were "positive, thankful, offering no resistance." At the end of the stay, the Engineers Without Borders once again made the rounds to bid farewell, many of them now friends.

"This is the beginning," she said. "I believe the project will take years."

Jones plans to return next winter to continue the work.

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