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Engineering a humanitarian water project solution in Timor Leste

Published in the November 2013 issue

A plan to introduce an economically viable ceramic water filtration system into a poor Timor Leste village, with the support and goodwill of locals, has secured Southern Cross University engineering students a place in the national final of the Engineers Without Borders Design Challenge on December 3.

Lisa Hansberry and Corelle Forster will travel to Melbourne for the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Design Challenge national showcase on behalf of their Team Go H2O teammates, Dylan Fletcher and Beau Monks.

The presentation by Lisa and Corelle in Brisbane last week (November 21) won the praise of judges at the Queensland state final of the EWB Challenge, which is aimed at first year engineering students.

Lisa Hansberry (left) with Corelle Forster at the EWB Design Challenge in Brisbane.

Lisa Hansberry (left) with Corelle Forster at the EWB Design Challenge in Brisbane.

Along the way, Team Go H2O edged out teams from the University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and Central Queensland University.

“We focused on consulting the villagers of Codo and creating an industry to give them something they could work with forever,” said Lisa, who is also president of the SCU Engineering Society.

Corelle said the project had been an eye opener.

“I hadn’t considered humanitarian engineering until now. The skills and knowledge I’m learning can make a difference in the lives of others.”

EWB is working with community partners in Timor Leste to develop innovative and appropriate project solutions that contribute to the sustainable development of Codo, located in the Lautem district of north east Timor Leste.

The significance of Team Go H2O’s project concept was in outlining a strong process to engage the villagers to install ceramic water filtration units. Team Go H2O also made maximum use of the existing organisations working in the region and plan to engage another, Potters for Peace, to help set up a local factory. The clean drinking water systems are expected to be integrated into schools, community centres and individual homes.

Dr Neal Lake (left) with Team Go H2O Corelle Forster, Dylan Fletcher, Lisa Hansberry and Beau Monks.

Dr Neal Lake (left) with Team Go H2O members Corelle Forster, Dylan Fletcher, Lisa Hansberry and Beau Monks.

“What helped secure our win was the extensive research we did into the area and the people,” said Lisa.

“We discovered there’s a push by the Timor Leste government to build nationalism, with an emphasis on sanitisation and schools. So our proposal aligns with these government initiatives while supporting the community to capacity build, which is what EWB is all about.”

Corelle said the water filtration and storage solution would reduce microbial contamination and vector breeding grounds, therefore reducing the risks of contracting related diseases.

“The ceramic filtration unit has multiple benefits for the villagers. It is easy to use, clean and maintain; it provides a ready supply of safe drinking water; it’s cheaper than purchasing water and will result in a reduction in plastic containers; and the units have the potential to become a local industry.”

Civil engineering course coordinator and lecturer Dr Neal Lake said humanitarian engineering was about getting the balance right.

“Critical to success is to think carefully about the context of the situation. A $50 water filter from a hardware store is unlikely to be successful in the long term for the local people in Codo when you consider who would fund it, who would maintain it, and do they have the infrastructure to connect it? This is where the SCU team excelled in their project. Careful consideration was made as to how to educate the community using song, theatre and dance to assist with the education of the village,” he said.

“Engineers of the future in any discipline will not necessarily be the gifted, technical ones who can do copious calculations in quick time. Instead they will be the ones who can decide if the solution idea is even worth considering at the start by considering the economic, environmental and particularly social objectives of a project.”

Southern Cross University introduced a Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Honours) for the first time in 2013.

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  1. Melissa Fitzgerald says:

    Well done Lisa and Corelle! I am very interested in water projects such as this as I work with a windmill manufacturing company in Australia. Have you considered using windmills to pump the water from underground or from rivers to be then filtrated. Access to water is usually an issue for developing countries. melissa@cometwindmills.com.au

  2. Hi Melissa,

    The project we worked on had a good supply of water from a spring up hill from the town so there was no need to consider other methods of getting the water.
    Windmills are great, they do need a good supply of wind, so in considering whether it was a good method for a particular community there would need to be a study of the wind patterns in that area and whether the windmill could supply the amount of water needed by the community.