Teaching Public Works in El Salvador

Bob Kass
Public Works Director
City of Campbell, California
Chair, APWA International Affairs Committee

"Any thoughts on a public works person who may be interested in spending a week in El Salvador?" - Barbara

This was the first sentence of an e-mail that was forwarded to me in November 2005 by my friend and colleague Barbara Keegan, City Engineer of the neighboring City of Sunnyvale, California. She had received an e-mail from a coworker who in turn had received an e-mail from a professor at Santa Clara University looking for someone to travel to El Salvador to teach a course on public works. After calling my wife and getting the green light, I replied to the contact person at Santa Clara University with a "Yes!" along with a copy of my resume (in Spanish). Four and one-half months later, I was on the red-eye from Los Angeles to El Salvador to teach a course at the University of Central America Jose Simeon Canas (UCA), located in the country's capital city of San Salvador.

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, with a population of nearly seven million within its approximately 8,100 square miles, making it slightly larger and more populous than the State of Massachusetts. It is bordered by Guatemala on the west, Honduras on the north and east, and the Pacific Ocean on the south. San Salvador, the economic heart of the country, is a thriving metropolis, with a metropolitan population of approximately 2.1 million inhabitants. El Salvador is undergoing an economic resurgence, putting behind the ravages of its 12-year civil war that claimed an estimated 75,000 persons during the period 1980 through 1992. El Salvador is currently the most robust economy in Central America, with significant U.S. investment and an expanding and diversifying professional and middle class.

  The UCA campus

Upon my arrival, I was met at the airport by Willian Marroquin, Vice-Rector of the Department of Science and Engineering at the UCA and my contact in El Salvador. Willian was also the coordinator of the post-graduate studies program in municipal environmental management and planning through which my class was being offered. An hour ride north from the Comalapa International Airport, which lies in the coastal plain 45 miles south of the capital city, took me to the UCA campus and the visiting faculty guest house, my home away from home for a week.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this trip was the intellectual exchange at the guest house among the other visiting faculty members: a Spanish philosophy professor teaching a course on Nietzsche while finishing a translation of one volume of Nietzsche's letters from German into Spanish; a professor of comparative education from Uruguay who was also the first Latin American to obtain his Ph.D. in Sweden; a Spanish social psychology professor teaching a course on the psychology of state terrorism; and a Nicaraguan law professor teaching a two-week course in criminal justice. And then there was me, a Public Works Director, lecturing about potholes, garbage collection and park design.

  Engineering Building on the UCA campus

My class was held in the new engineering building on the UCA campus, and lasted four days. The morning session ran from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., with the afternoon session resuming at 2:00 p.m. and concluding around 4:30 p.m. Approximately 22 professional-level students attended the class, including City officials, private consultants, National Legislative Assembly staff, and representatives from the Federal Ministry of the Environment. The diversity of the group provided for energetic conversation and discussion, particularly regarding the challenges facing El Salvador in the provision of public works.

The course began with an overview of the public works profession in the United States, followed by a more in-depth presentation on the structure of local government as it related to the provision of public works and services. Sources of funding for public works were presented, with much discussion ensuing regarding the different capabilities to raise revenue in the United States as compared to El Salvador. One of the most interesting discussions related to the need to achieve greater and more equitable compliance in the payment of taxes or fees for services, such as water and sewer service, street maintenance, or garbage collection.

  Bob Kass teaching class at the UCA Engineering Building

Additional modules included solid waste management (collection, recycling and disposal); street maintenance (pavement management systems); design, construction and maintenance of parks and urban forests; and transportation and traffic engineering, where I benefited greatly from the assistance of guest-lecturer Julio Fuentes, a City of San Diego Senior Traffic Engineer, native of El Salvador, and current chair of the APWA/AMMAC Partnership Task Force, who arranged a trip to El Salvador to visit his family to coincide with my class.

On the Saturday before I departed, Willian took me on a tour of the some of the countryside in western El Salvador, including a visit to his hometown of Chalchuapa, where the Mayan ruins of Tazumal are located, and Lago Coatepeque, a picturesque lake within the crater of an extinct volcano.

Altogether, my trip to El Salvador was a very positive experience. Teaching the class was definitely an opportunity and challenge, and it was exciting to be at UCA which has a very significant place in El Salvador's history and in Central America overall.

Bob Kass can be reached at (408) 866-2150 or

Some Great Engineering Feats

Editor's Note: Inasmuch as this is our annual "Engineering and Technology" issue, our usual "International Facts and Proverbs" contributor, Jimmy Foster, Director of Public Works, Plano, Texas, has contributed the following information about some historical international engineering feats:

The English Channel Tunnel
This construction project was incredibly complex. Linking two countries, the project required working in two languages with two governments; two sets of national construction, safety and legal codes; 10 contractors; and 220 syndicate banks. Today, the 32-mile "Chunnel" is an engineering wonder. Completed at a cost of $12 billion, it is the world's largest privately financed engineering endeavor.

The Golden Gate Bridge
Deriving its name from San Francisco Bay, which was dubbed the "Golden Gate" some 150 years ago by prospectors who passed through it on their way to California's gold fields, this project was completed in 1937. At that time, the Golden Gate was the world's longest suspension bridge (1.7 miles) and the highest structure west of New York (745 feet).

The Panama Canal
Truly one of the great engineering feats of all time, the Panama Canal was designed at the turn of the 20th century and has been operating since 1914. It is 50.72 miles long, some of it hewn from solid rock. The United States built the canal at a cost of about $380 million. Battling malaria and yellow fever, thousands of laborers worked on it for about 10 years and removed 211 million cubic yards of earth and rock.

The Eiffel Tower
Designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the 984-foot tower contains about 7,000 tons of iron and steel and cost more than $1 million. For many years, it was the highest structure in the world.

The Great Wall of China
Said to be visible from the moon, the Great Wall is the longest fortified line ever built. It zigzags to the east and west along the mountains, stretching more than 1,500 miles. Construction of the Great Wall began in the 7th century B.C., and it took hundreds of years to complete. It stands about 25 feet high and has 40-foot towers built into it every 200 to 300 yards.

The Roman Aqueducts
Most aqueducts of ancient times were built of stone, brick or pozzuolana, a mixture of limestone and volcanic dust. Rome had many aqueducts and was the only ancient city reasonably supplied with water. By A.D. 97, nine aqueducts brought about 85 million gallons of water a day from mountain springs. Later, five others were built. About 200 cities in the Roman colonies had aqueducts.

The Roman Colosseum
Able to seat 45,000 spectators, the Colosseum is 161 feet high, about 600 feet long and 500 feet wide. The oval-shaped, sand-covered floor of the arena originally could be flooded for water spectacles. Construction of the Colosseum started during the reign of Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from A.D. 69 to 79. Construction was completed in A.D. 80.

The Washington Monument
The monument is over 555 feet high and measures over 55 feet along each of its four sides at the bottom. The walls are 15 feet thick at the bottom and 18 inches thick at the top. They are covered with white marble from Maryland, and the stones covering the pyramid are seven inches thick. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848, with the same trowel that Washington had used to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1793. But engineers found the ground too soft to support the monument, so they moved the site to the north. Work began Aug. 17, 1880, and was completed Dec. 6, 1884, at a total cost of $1.2 million.

This ancient monument of huge, rough-cut stones standing alone on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, may have been designed to allow observation of astronomical phenomena—summer and winter solstices, eclipses and more. Other speculations range from human sacrifice to astronomy.

Stonehenge was built in three stages from about 3000 to 1800 B.C. Perhaps the most impressive part of Stonehenge is how it was built. The first phase, the ditch around Stonehenge, was dug using antlers, bones and even bare hands. The bluestones, which weighed four tons each, came from over 240 miles away. They had to be floated by boat and then carried across land. The heaviest sarsen stone weighed 50 tons and would have had to be dragged along by 500 people.