Access to clean drinking water has been recognised by the United Nations as a fundamental human right, yet 1 in 3 people do not have access to it. A group of Australian organisations are using humanitarian engineering to change that.
A project involving the School of Engineering at the Australian National University (ANU), Abundant Water (AW) and Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) is installing water filters in homes and schools in Timor-Leste.
Dr Jeremy Smith, senior lecturer in engineering at ANU, told create that when he began volunteering with EWB, he was unsure how his skills as a manufacturing systems engineer could be used to help improve living conditions in developing countries.
“In 2005, I went along to an Engineers Without Borders presentation that was using exactly the same kind of research approaches that we were using in automotive manufacturing,” he said. “I had a classic lightbulb moment, and really started to see that our engineering could have a direct, tangible impact on people’s quality of life.”
After joining the organisation as a volunteer, Smith became an EWB chapter leader and now works two days per week in an educational capacity. Today, he’s coordinating the Timor-Leste project to increase access to clean drinking water in the country’s Baucau and Manatuto municipalities.
“This project is about deploying a technology that’s appropriate for particular Asia-Pacific locations,” he said. “By that, we mean in terms of the materials being available locally, using local skills, and that the money being spent returns and stays in the local community.”
The genesis of the project is through partner Abundant Water’s work in Laos and Nepal with small scale ceramic water filtration. The NGO was founded in 2008 by ANU engineering alumni Sunny Forsyth, and since it began operating in Timor-Leste in 2018, it has distributed almost 9000 filters to provide clean water to more than 44,400 people.
The current project in Baucau and Manatuto began in March this year and to date, Smith and the project team have overseen the installation of 162 filters at four schools and individual households, with the aim to provide a significant amount of clear drinking water for some 1,071 beneficiaries.
How it works
“The units are primarily for households that are collecting groundwater from creeks, wells and other open water sources that get contaminated by animal faeces. Householders bring this water back to their house for boiling, because there’s no pipe water systems in their infrastructure,” Smith said.
“What we’re trying to do is rather than boil the water, households are filtering it — which means that they don’t have to buy or collect firewood. This means that they also don’t get the emissions from burning wood.”
When it comes to making the filters, Abundant Water works with developing local vendors to help the supply chain.
“The system is a ceramic filter that has micro-pores in it which are created in the manufacturing process,” Smith said.
“When you pour the water into the system, the bacteria gets caught in the actual ceramic. This filtration system removes up to 99 per cent of this bacteria from the water.”
Maintaining the filters is also relatively easy. Requiring no more than a wipe down with a cloth each month and scrubbing every 6 to 12 months so the pores do not clog over.
“As for testing in the field, we’re looking for two things in particular. Firstly, there’s effectiveness: how effectively do the filters remove bacteria to improve health?,” Smith said.
“Secondly, what’s the flow rate to make sure you get enough water for what you need? We’re particularly looking at that flow rate over a long period of time so we can get an indication of effectiveness. If flow rates are too high, the filters probably are not working well enough.”
Building local capacity
The project is supported by the Australian Government through the SciTech4Climate program managed by the ANU Institute for Climate and Energy Disaster Solutions. Smith said this funding is not only supporting installation, but longer-term testing.
“The funding supports a rollout to between 1000 and 1200 households. Starting with local schools, Abundant Water builds a network of local vendors,” he said.
So far, 18 vendors in the regions have been identified and trained on both the technology and the business side of the system. The vendors are trained in hygiene as a major selling point.
“EWB is then helping with monitoring and evaluation over 12 month periods,” he said. “We are going back to about 10 per cent of the households to evaluate the effectiveness of the filters and see how people are using them.
“What we’re aiming to do is build out a longer-term understanding of their use.”
Smith pointed out that one of the vendors is a school teacher as well, who can promote the focus on hygiene and get the buy-in of the village chief.
“It should be said that there’s already lots of expertise within Timor-Leste,” he said. “Rather than relying on bringing in people from overseas, we’re working closely with local WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) experts, and local engineers who through this project are building their capacity.”
When it comes to humanitarian engineering projects, Smith said understanding the local conditions is as important as the solutions EWB is trying to put in place.
“It’s not just about having a water filter that is in theory 99 per cent proficient,” he said. “The way people use it is often very different to how it gets used in our lab. We have to ask a lot of questions on the ground about whether it is robust, requires complex maintenance, and needs spare parts.
“If we don’t get this right, we introduce risks around re-contamination of water, and safety of women and children who are the primary water collectors.
“Understanding these social and cultural contexts are absolutely critical to everything we do.”
Support the communities Engineers Without Borders works with through its end of financial year appeal.
The project is supported by the Australian Government through the SciTech4Climate program managed by the ANU Institute for Climate and Energy Disaster Solutions.
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