Civil engineer Daniel Lambert has accomplished a lot with his work in the water industry. But it is his embrace of the human side of his profession that has really seen him make a difference to people’s lives.
Daniel Lambert remembers the moment engineering went from, in his words, his head to his heart. He enjoyed the technical challenges he was presented with while studying civil engineering at university, but, while backpacking through South America, his outlook changed.
“I ended up in Ecuador volunteering with a group there — a not-for-profit group, working in the remote Quechua communities,” he told create.
“When the Spanish had come into South America, a lot of the indigenous communities had been pushed up into the highlands and the regional areas and were living in subsistence-type farming situations.”
Working with the Quechua people to develop water supply and sanitation systems for their communities, gave Lambert an insight into how powerful a force engineering can be in transforming people’s lives.
“Clean water for them meant health, and the sanitation meant that they weren’t suffering from sickness. A basic solution can transform a person’s life,” he said.
“I still remember when we finished this water supply project in one of the communities, looking in the eyes of the different Quechua people and them just being so thankful. It’s something that, when you have a personal interaction with someone, you see the life-changing impact of engineering solutions.”
That project changed his life too, he said. Ever since, Lambert, who is now Executive Manager of Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions at Queensland utility Unitywater, has made transforming people’s lives a central part of his engineering approach. Whether working in Australian communities responding to bushfires and bringing services to remote Indigenous communities or finding solutions to problems facing cities and towns in Pakistan and Indonesia, Lambert always wants to ensure his engineering work makes a lasting difference.
“Engineering isn’t just about concrete and steel or pipes and pumps,” he said. “It’s about people, and relationships, and the transformational impact we can have. And I think that changed the lens for why I do what I do.”
Making a difference
Inspired by engineering’s international development potential, today Lambert helps connect other engineers with opportunities to do good around the world, from his involvement as a specialist on RedR Australia’s Humanitarian Roster to his efforts as a board member on Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia. He is also a member of Engineers Australia’s Humanitarian Engineering Community of Practice Steering Committee.
But over time he has found many transferable skills between his accomplished professional work and his humanitarian efforts.
“Going in and helping people, identifying problems, asking the right questions, and collaborating — the skill sets are really applicable across different areas,” he explained.
“Whether it’s in consulting engineering or whether it’s working directly on client side with water utilities, there are different nuances in that space as well, but fundamentally [it’s about] our skills and ability to build relationships, ask questions, learn from one another, and be really outcome focused.”
Lambert is new to Unitywater, having just concluded 16 years with engineering consultancy Arup, most recently as Australasia Water Leader. “The positive impact we can have as engineers on people’s lives and on the environment — I found it very easy to see that link in the water profession.”
At Unitywater, he helps to lead the utility’s strategic planning, design, capital delivery, asset management, developer services and laboratory services.
“Having a positive social and environmental impact for customers and the community is a really exciting one,” he said. “I think that the water industry at the moment is going through a real transformation process, and there are a range of reasons for that, but [most] obviously how we as an industry respond to climate change.”
Unitywater’s Executive Manager, Customer and Community, Katherine Gee describes Lambert’s role as pivotal to Unitywater’s future.
“We work together to get those infrastructure solutions that are innovative yet meet all the customer’s expectations of reliable service alongside improved and amazing environmental outcomes,” she told create. “If we don’t have assets that are designed for the future, that are affordable for our customers and deliver services hundreds of years into the future in a really environmentally sustainable way, then Unitywater is not sustainable as an organisation.”
Gee says she is struck by Lambert’s passion and innovation.
“Daniel is very inclusive in his leadership,” she said. “He’s very approachable and very constructive. He focuses on the people, because he knows that people will get the outcome.”
The importance of this challenge was made clear during Lambert’s first week at his new job: the wettest in South-East Queensland’s recorded history.
“When we talk about climate change, we’ve been seeing this increasing severity of too much water and too little water,” he said. “When we’ve got too much water, it’s a huge challenge — in terms of flooding and sewage overflows and water quality issues in the environment and in customers’ properties. When we’ve got too little, how do we deal with that and deliver sustainable services?
“That resilience conversation is a challenging one, but also an exciting one for us to solve as engineers.”
With Unitywater’s service area being struck by heavy rain and floods throughout the first half of the year, it is a challenge that requires immediate solutions.
“How do you manage your network and your treatment plants to minimise impact?” Lambert asked. “How do you operate on sites impacted by rising sea levels? How do you operate treatment plants in those conditions in terms of the impacts on assets? We had customers at Bribie Island that were cut off from water supply, and responding with emergency works and emergency response to minimise disruption to customers is a really, really important aspect that needs to happen during and immediately after these events.”
These are new challenges for him, but Lambert has extensive experience to draw upon. At Arup he oversaw major projects around the world, from helping establish the Sydney Water Planning Partnership to Melbourne’s Yarra Park Water Recycling Project and the Bandar Lampung Water Treatment Plant in Indonesia.
The Sydney Water Planning Partnership, for instance, is the largest consulting framework in the history of the Australian water industry. It was designed to deliver fully integrated planning and concept design services for the water management of the largest city in the country and supported Sydney Water in technical advisory and project engineering roles. Dr Mark Fletcher, Arup Global Water Leader, said Lambert’s work on the project established a reputation with Sydney Water.
“He developed high level and strong client relationships where he demonstrated collaboration based on mutual respect and dedication to striving to continuously improve,“ said Fletcher. “He embraces sustainability and is an expert in sustainable water management.
He also believes in supporting those communities who don’t have access to clean water and safe sanitation.”
Power of passion
Lambert’s accomplishments were formally recognised in 2021 when he was presented with the Sir John Holland Civil Engineer of the Year Award. It is a recognition that he particularly values because the late John Holland was a mentor to him during his younger days.
Lambert met the revered engineer while serving as a Captain in the Australian Army’s Engineering Corps. “He was a very impressive man who had a huge impact in Australia and elsewhere in civil engineering,” he said.
“I think that it added a layer of meaning to the award, having met him and having been mentored by him early in my career.”
Lambert said he was inspired by Holland’s passion.
“I had a relationship where I was able to reach out and ask him questions and seek his advice over a period of time, and he was very generous with his time, insights, and support,” he recalled. “It’s the ability to see the big picture, and the ability to really recognise the value that we play as engineers.”
Lambert found his work in the army offered a chance to pursue a different engineering style.
“Often with consulting and construction, there’s a lot of planning and approvals and process,” he said. “In the Engineering Corps, you’ll often have to quickly set up an emergency water supply system or respond to crises like bushfires or floods.”
Responding to those kinds of crises also gave him the opportunity to bring his humanitarian work closer to home.
“That was very rewarding, being able to contribute in that way,” he says. “Being able to protect people’s houses and people’s lives — and, interestingly, with bushfires, there’s a direct link with protecting the water supply as well. When bushfire gets into water supply catchments, it has a huge negative impact on them.”
He also worked on providing housing, water supply, roads, and other infrastructure in Aboriginal communities.
“I think, for me, it was an eye-opener,” he said. “We often think about the challenges in Africa, or in Asia, or other areas where there’s poverty. But there’s still a huge gap, in terms of health, and in terms of education, and in terms of the social challenges that we have, in parts of regional Australia.”
Engineers Australia’s General Manager, Victoria, Alesha Printz, an EWB board member, said Lambert has changed lives through his work. “The solutions that he’s delivered and the legacies that he’s built will impact generations,” she said. “He is passionate about the profession and the opportunity for engineering to improve lives.”
She said Lambert’s contributions as an EWB board member are valued and insightful.
“Dan is a wonderful role model for engineers in the profession and those thinking about joining the profession,” Printz told create. “His work exemplifies the critical nature of engineering and sends a more contemporary message about engineering: Engineering is for people and lives are better for it.”
Throughout his work, whether it’s for a consultancy or for the defence force, here in Australia or on a distant shore, Lambert said he has seen the importance of becoming deeply involved in the communities with which he works.
He points as an example to one project in the Pakistan city of Karachi that he worked on with the World Bank while at Arup. Historically, the residents of Karachi have owned a large number of cows, and as the city has grown, this bovine population has proved to be a problem.
“The government mandated they needed to be moved out to a certain part of the city, and they ended up having about 400,000 cows that produce an estimated 8000 tonnes of manure every day,” Lambert explained.
That meant shipping in large quantities of food for this mass of cattle and dealing with the pollution problems that resulted, such as manure being directed into drains that led straight into the ocean.
“There was a big environmental challenge, and at the same time, Karachi has a big energy challenge,” he said. “So there was an opportunity for us to look at a solution there which had multiple benefits, and work with the Karachi state electricity company.”
The resulting waste-to-energy facility will make a significant difference to Karachi’s people, but it wouldn’t have happened without Lambert embedding himself among the residents of the city.
“I go back to Pakistan regularly and work on water projects over there. And I’ve built long-term relationships with people there,” he said. “I think that being able to go back to different communities over a period of time, you can see the long-term impacts and you can see the long-term benefits.
“For me, something that’s really enjoyable is seeing how a community evolves over time, and seeing how you can build trust over time and build partnerships over time.”