22 February 2017

Engineering Insight February/March 2017: The Wawan project

  • A team of workers complete the roofing on the Barereo rainfall harvesting structure. Photo: EWBNZ

A collaborative project between Engineers Without Borders New Zealand and communities in Vanuatu brings fresh water to remote villages

It takes a lot to be a volunteer for Engineers Without Borders New Zealand (EWBNZ): patience, adaptability, tenacity and maybe just a little workaholism. Most of all, you need passion and a belief you can make a difference through hard work and service rooted in providing practical solutions.

Since 2008, EWBNZ has been partnering with NGOs and other organisations with established community relationships in New Zealand and the Pacific. An organisation sees where there’s a need and contacts EWBNZ, who’ll put the expertise of their volunteers to work finding solutions.

The recently-completed Wawan Water Project in Vanuatu is a case in point. “A few years ago Engineers Without Borders New Zealand was approached by an Australian volunteer, who was coming to the end of a project building a water supply pipeline for a village called Wilit on remote Ambrym Island in Vanuatu,” says EWBNZ Project Manager Matthew Lillis GIPENZ. “The Wawan Council – the local council in charge of water and sanitation – wanted to extend water supplies to further villages, and the volunteer thought EWBNZ would be well placed to continue the work.”

Civil and environmental engineer Matthew is a project engineer for Hamilton City Council. As an EWBNZ volunteer, he was also the lead project manager who remotely supervised the Wawan Project from New Zealand. Initially, the Wawan Council wanted a pipeline to the other villages, but because there wasn’t an adequate surface water source, EWBNZ and the Wawan Council decided to build four rainfall-harvesting structures, water tanks and reticulation. The project began in 2014. It involved 30–40 people from New Zealand, two remote project managers, about 40 people from the village who helped construct the structures and one EWBNZ site engineer.

The project wasn’t without its challenges and complexities. Site engineer Kyle Richards needed to learn the local language, Bislama, so he could communicate with the local people with whom he worked. Limited internet access was the only way Kyle and Matthew, and the assistant project manager Gina Yukich who was also based in New Zealand, could communicate with each other.

“Every day seemed to throw up a new challenge,” says Matthew. “Materials had to be shipped to a beach sometimes several kilometres from the project site, then rowed to shore and shifted on the back of utes to the site. Alterations to the layout of the structures were difficult to resolve. The villages wanted to reduce the height of the second two rainfall collection structures, and change the direction of the pitch of the roof by 90 degrees – completely changing the direction in which the roof sloped. Altering the pitch would have meant the corrugations in the roofing steel would be going the wrong way to direct water to the gutters, unless we realigned the purlins and rafters by 90 degrees, too. We didn’t have the time to do the substantial new structural design calculations that would have been needed to make that sort of change. Our solution was to chop the design for the structure in half and shift the top half of the structure down, which allowed the guttering to be placed along the wide side of the structure instead of the narrow side. This required minimal structural redesign and met the villagers’ requirements.

We did have difficulty persuading the villagers to do certain things for reasons that weren't immediately obvious, such as adding additional structural bracing to structures that they saw as comparatively well-built. They had a lot of respect for Kyle by the end of the project, which helped a lot in avoiding shortcuts.”

Embedding technical knowledge

Logistical, technical and cultural difficulties aren’t uncommon, especially in remote environments where resources and technology might be limited. What’s important is that wherever EWBNZ has made a difference, they’ve also embedded the technical knowledge they brought with them within the community.

“There is a lot of pride in Falibeur and Barereo – the villages where this project was carried out – and a desire by other nearby villages to build similar water supplies now they can see the outcome,” says Matthew. “The construction of these rainfall harvesting structures is seen as an impressive achievement particularly given that they were constructed almost entirely by the communities themselves. The major improvement is a much more reliable water supply, particularly during the dry season. Other improvements include four new public structures which are intended for use as meeting places and markets, and improved construction skills and understanding of what’s possible among the communities. Similar buildings on a smaller scale have already begun to emerge.

“A project should leave the local community better placed to meet future challenges on their own terms without the need for outside help. We involve the local community in every stage of the project from funding and decision making to management and construction.”

Making a difference

This cuts to the core of what EWBNZ is really about, says Emily Hinton, EWBNZ Learning and Development Manager: “Our vision is that everyone has access to engineering knowledge and resources to lead a life of equal opportunity, free of poverty.”

Emily, a mechanical engineering graduate who works full time in Beca’s Wellington Building Services team, is representative of EWBNZ’s volunteer base: young, talented, energetic, community yet globally focused, and selfless. While she dreams of making a difference in the world, like many of the volunteers, this desire is firmly rooted in providing practical solutions to some of the problems communities in the Pacific and New Zealand face.

At aged 25 or younger, and all either engineering students or recent graduates, Emily, Matthew, Kyle and Gina are giving their careers a kickstart through the opportunities EWBNZ provides. As volunteers, they take on projects calling for much more responsibility than they’d usually be given at such an early stage in their careers. It’s a big commitment but they’re not on their own. “I'm lucky to have an employer who allows me to work 32 hours a week, so I can take time out during the day to solve issues for EWBNZ projects,” says Matthew.

Emily says “I have managed to integrate my work for EWBNZ into my day job by including my employer in the work we do, running workshops with school students to teach them about humanitarian engineering at the office. But 95 per cent of the work I do is outside of work hours. It’s definitely a commitment to get home after a long day of work to get into my ‘second job’”.

There’s a sense of duty to pass on their knowledge – not only to the communities they’ve volunteered in, but also to the next generation of volunteers and humanitarian engineers through their In School programmes, Design Challenges and other outreach initiatives. This holistic approach to engineering – mixing technical skills and requirements, problem solving, variety and humanitarianism – is what makes volunteering for EWBNZ so attractive.

“Volunteering for EWBNZ has taught me things I wouldn’t have learned in my day job and made me a better engineer,” says Emily. “But it’s not something you should do just for it to look good on your CV. It’s something you have to be absolutely passionate for and want to do – it’s a labour of love.” 

Writer: Aidan Rasmussen

Read about the engineers giving their time to help communities at home and abroad in Engineering Insight February/March 2017