In May 1981, a new engineering consulting firm from Edmonton set up shop in Whitehorse with one engineer and a technologist. Local staff was hired for the summer.
Meanwhile, 12,000 kilometres away, the Marxist Derg regime was running a brutal dictatorship in Ethiopia and had only just thwarted a Somali invasion with military support from the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Today, 25 years later, EBA Engineering Consultants Ltd. has decided to lend a helping hand to the African country, plagued by years of political turmoil, disease and famine.
And it has sent one of its Yukon employees to help get the job done.
Twenty-five-year-old hydrogeologist Katherine Johnston, who has been working at EBA’s Whitehorse office for the past year, left for Ethiopia Friday.
She was selected from more than 500 engineers, scientists and technologists in 11 offices located across western and northern Canada to spend two weeks in one of Africa’s most populous and poorest nations.
Johnston will use her engineering and project-management consulting skills to help villagers gain access to clean spring-water sources.
She has never been to Africa before.
“It’s exciting; it’s a different place to go travel that’s for sure,” Johnston said last week.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, EBA has teamed up with a small international aid group doing work in Ethiopia called Partners in the Horn of Africa.
“We are heavily involved in our communities in Canada, but this is the first international humanitarian project EBA has been involved with,” said Johnston.
Run by Canadian volunteers, Partners was co-founded by a long-time EBA client who lived in Whitehorse for more than 15 years.
The group works in partnership with indigenous African volunteer groups — building school facilities, medical centres, bridges and homes for HIV orphans.
EBA has been providing both technical and financial support for the Ethiopian water source project, injecting at least $50,000, according to Whitehorse project director Richard Trimble.
“That’s not counting out-of-pocket expenses for engineering time,” said Trimble. “Katherine is still on full salary and her expenses are paid for.”
An Edmonton-based employee went over in December 2005 to help get things underway, and now Johnston will be there to see the project wrap up.
“It’s now in the construction phase, and I’m going over to help supervise and see how things are going,” she said. “I’ll be another set of eyes and ears in the field.”
They expect to complete spring-protection sites for five villages located in the rugged highlands of the Ahmaran Wollo region, a 10-hour drive north of the country’s capital Addis Ababa.
Located at 3,600 metres above sea level, the area went through a severe drought and famine from 2000 to 2002.
Presently, only 25 per cent of Ethiopians have access to clean water, and water-borne disease is contributing to high morbidity rates.
Johnston will be helping a local engineer oversee the building of concrete containment cribs, designed to protect a spring and segregate its users.
Currently the water is being used both by animals and people at the same time, resulting in contamination and disease.
“You will have an animal drinking out of the same pool and peeing in the same place where people are collecting their drinking water from,” said Johnston.
“So what this is going to do is separate and protect water for human consumption.”
The cribs will collect the spring water and direct the flow to a tap either at the source or further down to an accessible area through a pipe.
“The women are the ones that mainly do the work, and they can spend quite a bit of time hauling water hundreds of metres, so if we can keep the water safe and pipe it closer to the communities, it’ll be that much easier to access,” she said.
All supplies, including hand shovels, cement, rocks and piping, must be hauled to the work site either by person or donkey.
Since graduating from geological engineering at UBC in 2003, Johnston had been working in the area of groundwater supply, development and protection, first in BC and then in the Yukon.
Much of the Yukon relies on groundwater for at least a portion of the year, she said.
Johnston had been looking for an opportunity to share her expertise with those less fortunate than Canadians.
“I came to the realization that here in Canada we don’t think about water, because we’re blessed with so much of it.
“It’s abundant, it’s everywhere, but really we’re a global exception.”
When she became aware of EBA’s new initiative, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it.
“I basically said that I’d been in groundwater supply and protection for the last three years and that I firmly believed in the right for every individual to have access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.
“I said I would bring to the project my experiences working in remote village settings in the Yukon and BC with limited resources and communication.”
Johnston doesn’t speak Amharic, the native language of the villagers she’ll be helping, but she purchased a phrase book, and, she said, English is taught in many schools.
“Apparently I’ll be able to get by in the urban setting, but I’m not sure about the rural areas,” said Johnston, noting many villagers have never seen a white person before.
Ethiopia is nestled in the heart of the Horn of Africa — the eastern-most part of the African continent.
Many of its 75 million inhabitants rely on food aid from abroad.
Upon her return, Johnston will share her experience with EBA staff in Whitehorse and across western Canada.
Its Whitehorse staff has grown to 15 full-timers, and a seasonal staff of 20.
Last year, it did small water-supply evaluation for all Yukon government buildings in the territory.
The EBA board of directors will be throwing a party in Whitehorse at the end of May to celebrate the office’s 25th anniversary.
“It won’t be anything wild and extravagant,” said Trimble. “We’ll just be inviting clients who have supported us over the years to show our appreciation.”