Technical skills won’t be enough to solve engineering problems around water, says this year’s Engineers Australia Engineering Associate of the Year.
Mal Shepherd AFIEAust, who leads the development and delivery of major water infrastructure projects as Chief Development Officer at Sunwater and a Director of WaterAid, said engineers will need to bring fresh skills to the water sector to meet looming challenges.
Shepherd said the challenges facing the water sector require a big-picture approach that puts the value of water at the forefront of every aspect of development.
“It is no longer merely a case of designing and building water infrastructure,” Shepherd said.
“Engineers in the water sector will need to bring system thinking skills to their approach and an understanding of the natural capital value of water.
“We need to supplement technical skills with creative problem solving, thinking more deeply about diversity, inclusion, and communication to generate solutions that create intergenerational benefits.”
The reality of increasing climatic extremes is necessitating new pathways for water security, and Shepherd said now is the time to consider all the options available.
“The fact is that we live in a world that alternates between drought and flooding,” he said.
“But we can ensure we have sustainable water resource management for water security, and we have clean waterways, through integrated planning of stormwater and wastewater treatment.”
The work remaining
With a 35-year long career dedicated to water infrastructure, including leadership in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) not-for-profit sector, Shepherd said engineers are essential to bolstering efforts to achieve universal access to safe water.
“Water is the elixir of life and with 2030 just around the corner, engineers need to pursue the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in their work,” he said.
“Globally, we still have around two billion people that lack access to safely managed drinking water services and, according to the UN and WHO, over half of the global population lack safely managed sanitation services.
“Water is the cornerstone to social and sustainable engineering whether you talk about the race to net zero, the circular economy or addressing poverty.
“We should lean into all these challenges with no regrets, as we will be defined by future generations as they look back on what legacy they have inherited.”
Addressing the gap
Climate change and increasing water demand aside, Shepherd said the skills shortage is the biggest present issue facing the engineering sector, which is why he is passionate about advocating, mentoring and promoting gender diversity and inclusion within engineering.
“We cannot face these challenges without good people,” he said.
“Universities and businesses need to step up collaboration with schools and educators to promote engineering as a rewarding career pathway.”
And Shepherd said his career showcases what is possible for those who wish to dedicate their career to engineering: exciting, crucial and fulfilling work.
“The water industry will always be at the centre of my career. All water projects are rewarding because they transform lives, communities, and business,” he said.
“During the Millenium Drought, rapid delivery of water infrastructure was required to address real and looming supply challenges. I was involved in the delivery of a number of these infrastructure projects, such as the Gold Coast and Sydney desalination initiatives, and several of the bulk water assets for Canberra and Victoria.
“But I am particularly proud of my contribution to WASH programs in emerging economies. These work to improve the health of women and children and, ultimately, help break the cycle of poverty.”
Shepherd said his career has been full of highlights, with engineering providing the opportunity to be involved in innovative and ground-breaking projects – including his work on the Sundrop Farms project in Port Augusta.
“Sundrop Farms leads a visionary and revolutionary approach where the three essentials for traditional farming – fresh water, farmland, and fossil fuels – are no longer decision drivers or limitations,” he said.
“The overall aim of the project was to produce year-round sustainable horticultural products for Australia’s national grocery market and to do so with minimal fossil fuel usage or extraction of fresh water from the environment.
“This project demonstrated how engineering design can achieve sustainable business operations that are net zero.”
Learn more about the biggest sustainability strides in engineering at the Climate Smart Engineering conference. It’s on around the country on 22-23 November. Speakers include Dr Saul Griffith, IPCC author Kevin Hennessy and MCi Carbon COO Sophia Hamblin Wang. View the full program here.