Challenge winners build bridges to better lives

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsKarn Kalra, Jackson Chin and Andrew Bebnowski form the winning team of the Western World’s Challenge Challenge for their idea for building bridges to link isolated communities in rural Bolivia. Behind them, a bridge they helped build in Bolivia last summer.

They had only two choices. Bolivian villagers seeking access to schools, health care or markets could either ford a capricious river that goes from trickle to torrent in a matter of minutes or take an eight-hour detour around.

Neither option was appealing – both could prove quite dangerous.

But thanks to a team of Civil Engineering students, there may be a third option – build a 90-metre suspension bridge to carry them safely, in minutes, between riverbanks.

Andrew Bebnowski, Jackson Chin and Karn Kalra are the winning Western’s World’s Challenge Challenge team for their bridge-building plan, through the Western Engineers in Action club.

Their presentation – one of nine in the competition to create smart, sustainable solutions to world problems – noted how millions of people around the world remain in isolation because they are unable to transport goods, livestock or themselves across impassable rivers and valleys.

“The best part about our presentation was that this is something we’re actively doing – not a proposal,” Chin said.

The trio were part of a team that went to Bolivia for two months last summer to build a bridge with residents of a mountainous village and student Engineers in Action teams from University of Toronto, Duke University and University College (UK).

Struck by the difference a bridge could make, they resolved to do more and set about making it happen again this summer near Lipez, Bolivia, a mostly desert community of about 300 people.

There, the dry season creates a lazy river bed for half the year and torrential rains from November to April mean the river could rise into flash flooding at any time. “It’s impassable during the rainy season,” Chin said.

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The team’s World’s Challenge Challenge presentation detailed plans to go to the area this summer with Western and Toronto Engineers in Action to build a suspension footbridge that’s 90 metres long and one metre wide across the gorge/floodplain. It would be usable year-round, in dry and wet season, for pedestrians, motorcyclists and livestock.

“We have to design it so a line of cows could stand one metre apart for the whole length of it,” Bebnowski said. (The design and other facets of the project would be approved by an accredited engineer.)

Because the area is both remote and barely accessible, everything except the steel rebar and wooden planks must come from the site or from nearby.

Such isolation across rivers is not a problem limited to Bolivia, they said. Therefore, the project can be translated from engineering classrooms to almost any community where access to basic resources and economic growth is limited by impassable gorges or rivers.

Kalra said, “It may just seem like a bridge but it’s an insurance policy to make sure they get where they’re going and are able to be back home again.”

The cost of materials is $16,500, and each student also pays for transportation, food and lodging.

They invest in cultural training before they go to ensure the projects are truly collaborative with local residents and that there is a locally sustainable plan of maintenance once the bridge is built.

The down-payment for their participation was due the day of the World’s Challenge Challenge. They immediately invested their $3,000 winnings into the project.

The winning team was impressed – and more than a little daunted – by the quality of the other Challenge teams, whose projects ranged from improving refugee mental health to restoring the world’s ailing fisheries.

The Engineering team is looking forward to the global competition of the World’s Challenge Challenge, to take place at Western from June 2-6.

Meanwhile, they are also fundraising as much as they can, through Krispy Kreme donut sales, bar and restaurant nights and seeking sponsors. They have also launched a GoFundMe page.