A world of difference

(Edmonton) When he first began studying engineering at the U of A, Fraser Mah couldn’t have guessed that he’d end up spending a summer in Malawi trying to solve water-supply issues in rural towns and villages.

As a member of the U of A chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Mah spent the past four months on the program’s junior fellowship in the Rumphi and Mzimba districts, helping to determine community financing formulas to repair bore holes for water wells that had stopped working. Essentially, his job involved meeting with local authorities and finding out how much money their town or village could reasonably contribute to repairing the well. That information would then be passed along to another agency that would move the repair projects along.

But it turns out, the job wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Myriad differences from one town to the next, economic influences beyond the control of local committees, quality of water and local politics all came into play.

“There were salinity issues with the water in one district,” said Mah, who is in his final year of civil and environmental engineering. “I talked to the local water committee and they really didn’t want to repair it because the water is too salty, even though the next one is as far as a kilometre away. Through the questions we asked, we kind of teased out the fact that they didn’t want it repaired because of the water quality.

“In other cases, there would be a bore hole that needed repair even though there was a working one 50 metres away, so there was no incentive to have it fixed.”

Other factors, such as the market price for tobacco crops, introduce uncertainty into the amount of money a community could contribute to bore hole repairs, says Mah, but just because the task of finding a dollar figure a community could raise was more complicated than anticipated doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

“It is really a lot more complicated and it came to the point where we thought, ‘Maybe there isn’t such a number,’ and that facet of my research became looking at the idea of a checklist or set of criteria instead of trying to fit a round peg through a square hole, so we could think of something like, ‘If the population is this number, then they can raise one amount, depending on the time of year and when crops have come in.”

Mah says that, while the work doesn’t fit with traditional definitions of what engineering is, he definitely applied skills he has learned through classes and Engineers Without Borders to the job.

“When people ask me where the engineering was, my answer is that it was everywhere. We tackle complex systems and engage with stakeholders and address a huge number of variables. In terms of what we do in the classroom it is different, but the skills we use are so important.

“I felt that the research I was doing could have been a master’s program,” said Mah. “It has been a really cool exposure to that sort of thing and it has piqued my interest in that confluence of engineering, sociology, anthropology, public policy and governance and where all those things overlap. I think there is a lot more potential for engineers to get involved in that multidisciplinary sphere.”

The student chapter of Engineers Without Borders is holding its first meeting of the term Sept. 14 at 5:15 p.m. on the main floor of NREF. Anyone interested in EWB is welcome to attend. Regular meetings of the EWB chapter are held at 5:15 p.m. in the Colt Design Lab, ETLC.