By Tony Sauder

Lecturer and Academic Advisor

Master of Science in Applied Geosciences Program

University of Pennsylvania

The Penn chapter of Engineers without Borders (PennEWB) has been involved in water and sanitation projects in the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala for the past 10 years.  Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, is characterized by the indigenous Mayan towns on its shores.  PennEWB was first attracted to the region by the Penn Medicine Guatemala Health Initiative’s support for the Hospitalito Atitlán, a small hospital in the Mayan town of Santiago Atitlán.  PennEWB made several exploratory trips before arriving in the small village of Pajomel, high above the northern shore of the lake.  The farmers in Pajomel asked for assistance in designing and building an irrigation system for dry season farming.  We tapped the highest producing springs, but still were only able to supply about 20 plots with irrigation water.   The desire to work with the entire community was fulfilled when our partner non-governmental organization (NGO), Ati’t Ala’, gathered the community in focus groups revealing that the women in the village wanted to improve access to sanitation facilities.

View of lake Atitlán from the village of Pajomel

Listening to the women of Pajomel was one of the early lessons the team learned in Guatemala.  Another lesson was the importance of engaging with the community to solve problems together, recognizing that sustainable solutions are only possible with community buy-in.  True community investment wasn’t always achieved until later phases of a project.

In January 2012, the PennEWB assessment team visited homes throughout the village to identify suitable sites for improved latrines in the community, usually speaking with the woman making decisions for her family.  We often had to work with a male translator because the women spoke Kaqchikel and very little Spanish.  In the community meetings, the men usually spoke before the women, but in the end, women’s approval sealed the outcome when they stepped forward to sign up for a new latrine.  We presented two types of latrine:  a ventilated improved latrine (VIP) and a pour-flush toilet bowl latrine.  The community chose the latter, even though it would require more work, be more expensive, and was relatively unknown in the area.  We completed a Memo of Understanding signed by representatives of PennEWB, the community and the NGO, Ati’t Ala’.

The PennEWB implementation team of mentors and students visited in August 2012, and worked with enthusiastic family members to build the 1st phase of pour-flush latrines.  The beneficiary families dug the pits, provided the local materials, and paid the skilled mason to complete the latrines.  However, what appeared to be a successful project at start, did not seem so successful when the monitoring and assessment team returned in January of 2013.  Only two of the 10 latrines were being used!  Residents said they weren’t used to this new kind of toilet, and kept using their old latrine, if they had one.  Our NGO partners convinced us not to give up, and that it would take time for families to adjust to using the new latrines. 

Pour-flush latrine bowl and pit

For the next phase, we identified a new group of families who were more committed to the project.  By the time of the second latrine implementation in May 2013, use of the pour-flush latrines seemed to be catching on.  It was especially moving when we worked with a widower and his young children to build a latrine and structure that was more “luxurious” than his house.

Other villages heard about PennEWB’s involvement with implementing latrines in Pajomel, and reached out to Ati’t Ala’ for help. They recognized that the same sanitation and hygiene problems in Pajomel impacted them as well.  Ati’t Ala’ recommended that we move to the larger village of Tzununá next, as women in the community came together to formally express their need for latrines. 

The first neighborhood in Tzununá was near the lakeshore and had long been resistant to development initiatives from outside.  But over time, more and more families dug their pits, and gathered their materials for pour-flush latrine construction.  Over several implementation trips, our students stayed in residents’ homes, ate tortillas prepared by the families, and played soccer with local youth.  They had the joys of putting on humorous skits on good hygiene practice in the elementary schools, while also sharing in the gut-wrenching sorrow of a beloved cook who tragically lost his father during our time there.

As the Tzununá latrine project was reaching full coverage, the much larger village of Panyebar approached Ati’t Ala to inquire about assistance with a water project.  Panyebar, with 3600 inhabitants, was supplying their scarce water on a three-day cycle and many residents didn’t get water at all.  They had originally requested federal government assistance to collect spring water below the community and pump it up 300 meters (984 feet) to their existing storage tank. This was too large of a project for PennEWB, so the municipality of San Juan agreed to build the supplemental water supply system.   We agreed to work on upgrades to the existing distribution system to deliver the limited water more equitably.  The newly established EWB-USA office in Guatemala took on the role of the local NGO, and fashioned a partnership agreement between EWB, the municipality, and the community to work on the project.

Women washing in the stream, not enough water at home

Our visits in 2019 included extensive household surveys to collect data on pipe locations, water delivery, use and pressures in each sector.  The PennEWB team worked with the water committee to identify the water delivery problem areas, and review the placement of valves and additional piping so that all households could receive some water at least once every three days.  The municipal project for supplemental water was delayed during the mayoral election season in May of 2019.  In January 2020, the supplemental water system being built by the municipality was 70% complete, but stalled shortly thereafter due to lack of funds.  With Covid-19, PennEWB was unable to travel, but submitted a design for upgrades to be implemented by EWB-USA Guatemala in one of the sectors.

The primary water managers in households are women, so we encouraged the water committee to add female members.  The community elected two women to the committee in August 2019 and during our January 2020 visit, we were able to engage with the new committee members.  Although water delivery continues to be challenging, we were encouraged by the female representation and leadership in finding solutions.  

In conclusion, the impact of these small scale Penn EWB projects on students and communities will be long lasting.  Students from diverse backgrounds engaged with each other and a culture very different from their own.  They learned to expect the unexpected, and that sustainable solutions require more social understanding and collaboration than technical knowledge.  Although relationships moved cautiously at times, the indigenous communities have welcomed partnership with us to solve problems together.  There have been opportunities to discuss how to work at dismantling racism in the US and Guatemala as it impacts water projects and immigration policies.  On top of everything, Covid-19 has made water for hygiene even more important than ever.


Over 100 Penn students visited Guatemala and worked on these projects, including over 20 leaders who visited multiple times, engaging with community leaders, reporting and giving guidance to students.

This project would not have been possible without support from the following:

  • More than 10 professional mentors from engineering, nursing, earth sciences and other fields.  Recent mentors from UPenn are Maria Andrews, Associate Director of Undergraduate Programs of EES and Erica DePalma, Research Program Coordinator at the Water Center.
  • School of Applied Science and Engineering: Ocek Eke, Director for Global and Local Service Learning Programs, and Sonya Gwak, Director of Student Life and Undergraduate Education who have made PennEWB service learning trips possible.
  • Partners in Guatemala:  Arturo Ujpan, project facilitator, first with Ati’t Ala, now with EWB-USA Guatemala.  Community Leaders in Pajomel, Tzununá and Panyebar
  • EWB-USA: ; Global Water Alliance: ; and Pennoni:


Tony Sauder is an engineer and geologist with more than 30 years of experience in water resources, hydrogeology and environmental engineering.  At Penn, he serves as an academic advisor and lecturer in the Masters of Applied Geosciences (MSAG) program as well a senior advisor to the Water Center at Penn.  For the past 15 years he has taught hydrology and worked at Pennoni while mentoring projects with Engineers without Borders’ (EWB) in Honduras, Guatemala and Cameroon and serving with the Global Water Alliance.