Building communities by building bridges

Paul Mayne//Western News

The Western chapter of Engineers in Action, a non-profit organization, will help build their third footbridge in Bolivia this summer. Western Engineering students Jake Hogan and Caspar Bain are pictured here on a Western footbridge over Medway Creek.

Six weeks in a remote Bolivian village, constructing a footbridge in sweltering temperatures, for just 30 people. And the nearest city with a comfortable bed and shower is more than six hours away.

Not tops on the travel list for most people, but most people aren’t part of Western’s chapter of Engineers in Action (EIA) who, for the third time, are eagerly anticipating helping rural communities bridge their gaps in geographic, economic and social isolation.

“Going halfway around the world to spend six weeks in the hot sun of Bolivia to build a bridge for 30 people – it does sound odd when you think about it like that,” said Jake Hogan, a fifth-year Engineering student and Western EIA project manager. “But this community has had multiple people die in the last few years, so the sense of urgency for a safe river crossing is there.”

Hogan, along with five other Western engineering students, will join the EIA team from the University of Alberta this May as they travel an hour south of Pojo, Bolivia, to construct a footbridge for villagers.

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Since 2006, EIA’s bridge program, has seen hundreds of students from 32 universities across the globe design and build 77 footbridges alongside rural communities in 11 countries, effectively connecting nearly 150,000 previously isolated people to essential resources. Western, McGill, Toronto and Alberta are the Canadian university members.

“It’s definitely not something that appeals to everybody but, for me, when I think about the opportunity, it sounds great,” continued Hogan, who is making his second trip to Bolivia. This past summer, Western’s EIA joined a team from the University of Toronto to construct a pedestrian bridgein the community of Lipez.

Flooding in regions of Bolivia, usually around November to April, regularly makes many rivers uncrossable, producing dangerous situations for residents to get access to hospitals, markets or schools.

“Access to agricultural land is also one of the biggest needs,” said Western EIA team member and fourth-year Engineering student Caspar Bain, who will also be returning to Bolivia this year to construct his second bridge. “The community we’re working with this year is sort of split on both sides of the river and, since they have to cross so often, villagers are putting themselves in danger attempting to cross with water almost two metres deep and flowing very fast. There’s no way for them to get across.”

Hogan recalled last year, as a rookie bridge builder, the daunting task. Learning his accommodation for the six weeks was to be an air mattress on the floor of a local restaurant was just the start; he then took in the construction site.

“This first day you get there and see the site, and meet the people you’ll be working with, it’s like there’s no way we’re going be able to build a bridge across here. It’s just not going to happen,” he laughed. “But as the process goes on, and you learn to work together, it all just starts to fall together and you’re then blown away by what can be accomplished.”

Not being able to pop down to the local lumber store to pick up supplies, Hogan recalled at one point the need to improvise when it came to having to bend rebar for a portion of the bridge.

“We were taking them and bending them around trees,” he said. “The ideas people come up with on a project like this are really cool. The whole constructions process is pretty incredible.”

Western’s EIA team continue to work towards fundraising efforts before taking off in early May, with each team needing to raise between $20,000 to $25,000 to help cover the cost of bridge materials and travel expenses for each member. The team is currently offering sponsorship packages for local businesses to be part of the project with more information available by emailing WesternUniversityEIA@gmail.com.

“We are matched up with working engineers on site, so it allows the students to get that professional experience as well. It’s great hands-on learning,” said Bain. While building bridges is quite the undertaking, it’s well worth the sweat equity each students puts in, he added.

“We’re out their mixing concrete by hand, sweating in hot sun for weeks and it is so tiring, but so worth it at the same time.”

Hogan echoed those feelings. Last summer when the team finished the work and were able to walk across the bridge for the first time, he recalls “running back and forth like a hundred times.

“I’m never going to get to do something like this again in my life. It’s relevant to what we’re learning in school, you get to offer a tremendous benefit to a small community and it’s great work experience.”