06 April 2017

Pacific transportation engineer vying for Young Engineer of the Year


Oliver Whalley’s work on sustainable transport in the Pacific has made him a finalist for Young Engineer of the Year.

He’s currently based in Nelson but has been working with the Government of Kiribati to improve the main road in its capital, South Tarawa. 

“As a project engineer for the World Bank, I provided project management and engineering support, and led the project in the key areas of coastal protection, road safety and maintenance.”

Tarawa’s highest point is just three metres above sea level, with climate change presenting a significant threat to the island.

Oliver says the rehabilitated road needed protection from erosion, which often involves importing large rocks.

“We discovered from laboratory testing that locally made concrete masonry blocks can provide efficient protection. Using local materials and local labour comes in at a fraction of the cost and provides employment; it’s a win-win. We’ve started to share this knowledge globally, as many atolls face similar issues.”

“Since the completion of the new road, people no longer have to sweep the dust from their houses, the risk of respiratory disease is reduced and the improved drainage means their homes don’t flood every time it rains. Without the dust and flooding, locals have set up BBQ stalls and sell fish alongside the new road.

“The impact of this road project on this atoll which is home to 60,000 people has been amazing.”

Oliver says his motivation to move into development work came out of his experience as an engineer in post-earthquake Christchurch.

“In the developed world, we only really think about civil engineering when it stops working. I saw the huge impact that reconnecting basic infrastructure had on people’s quality of life.”

He says his next career goal is becoming a team leader at the World Bank, and potentially bringing the skills he’s developing back to New Zealand.

“While we are an advanced developed country that strikes a good compromise with use of resources, I think there are some things that we could do better – like how to engage the public and how to minimise harmful environmental and social impacts. “

Oliver’s passion for sustainable transport extends into his personal life. As a mountain biker, he’s won international events, including a 4400km self-supported race from Canada to Mexico. He was one of the fastest participants in last year’s inaugural Tour Aotearoa, which saw mountain bikers traversing length of New Zealand.

The IPENZ Young Engineer of Year award recognises exceptional engineers under the age of 30. The other two finalists are Lachlan Matchett, Vice President of Propulsion at Rocket Lab, and Virginie Lacrosse, a Natural Hazard Engineer at Tonkin + Taylor who has been at the forefront of liquefaction work in Christchurch.

The winner will be announced on Friday 7 April at the IPENZ Fellows’ and Achievers’ Awards in Wellington.