Building communities through bolts

Students from the German city of Karlsruhe founded “Engineers Without Borders – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology e. V.” in 2004 to supply first aid to Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami. The club, which is not affiliated to the Engineers Without Borders global organisation, has over 100 students divided into independent project groups in seven countries. Robert Jürgens is one of the 22 members of the Sri Lanka project group, which built a suspension footbridge in the second half of 2013 over the Bentara river in the region of Karawwa in the south-western part of the island.

How did you know a footbridge was needed here?
“We’d already undertaken two projects in Sri Lanka so we have contacts in situ who give us leads. We visited the area and realised that the river separates the homes of around 2,000 people from their fields and school. So even if they could wade across when the waters are low it was very dangerous to cross during the monsoon season. The project was feasible and really helpful so we went ahead.”

How did you choose the exact site?
“There were technical reasons linked to the solidity of the river banks and to where the locals wanted the footbridge to be located, even if there was no road at all to reach the site. We had to build a temporary one using palm trees that we cut down so that our manual cement mixers and other equipment could reach the construction site!”

Why a suspension bridge?
“Well, it had to be cheap! We only have a small budget and it is my task to approach companies for supplies or funds. Nord-Lock gave us 1,300 pairs of NL12sp, 400 pairs of NL16sp and 50 pairs of NL20sp to ensure that the hundreds of bolt connections on the bridge remain tight. Due to the tools and manpower available, the bridge had to be easy to assemble. We wanted to avoid welding in these somewhat difficult conditions so bolting was the answer. And to ensure the bolt didn’t come loose it was recommended that we use Nord-Lock washers. We also didn’t want the bridge to be an eye-sore in the landscape as it is quite big: a 30 metres span for an overall length of 56 metres and 1.30 metres wide.”

How long did it take?
“Actual construction took place from July to October 2013 with a maximum of 22 people working at any one time. We had help from locals and several villagers came every single day. One of them was particularly motivated and reliable so today he is the bridge manager, checking the bolts and the state of the concrete. Overall the project took nearly two years.”

Who maintains the bridge today?
“As with all our projects the maintenance is in the hands of the locals and our successors in the student club check up on them from time to time. Earlier this year nine students went to Sri Lanka looking for a new project and they checked over our earlier operations.” 

Facts: Robert Jürgens
Age: 25
Background: With his business engineering degree studies at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Robert Jürgens was the right person to handle the logistics, fundraising and public relations aspects of the bridge building project in Pitigala.



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