UNSW Global Water Institute Research - Humanitarian Engineering

Engineering students tackle humanitarian water issues

Two teams of UNSW engineering students taking part in a Humanitarian Design Course have developed innovative strategies to help overcome water issues in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. The multidisciplinary course focused on developing critical professional skills including team work and ethics, while embarking on a journey to solve humanitarian challenges.

The first team was made up of Civil, Environmental and Photovoltaic Engineers who combined their skills and expertise to develop strategies to improve the drought resilience of Ugandan farms. The team worked in partnership with the Love Mercy Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that empowers female Ugandan farmers through their Cents for Seeds Program, providing seed loans and training and allowing farmers to plant and grow crops, repay their loans and re-invest a portion of the profit back into seed loans.

Following a recent drought, crop yields fell in the Otuke District in Uganda, some borrowers struggled to repay their Love Mercy loans and communities faced serious food shortages. The team of UNSW engineers were tasked with finding a solution to mitigate any such future devastating effects of drought. Cents for Seeds Farmer. Credit: Love Mercy Foundation

The team proposed a multi-pronged solution through both reducing the demand for water and increasing water supply. Improvements in local applications of weather forecasting were proposed through building relationships with local partners, installing rain gauges, and engaging citizen science, and suggested water efficiency strategies included introducing drought-tolerant crops, minimising soil tillage by only disturbing the soil where crops are planted, and planting ridges to ‘slow down’ rainfall as it travels down a slope, increasing rainwater infiltration and reducing runoff. To increase water supply, the team proposed installing a photovoltaic pump connected from a bore hole to a storage tank, and equipping locals with the skills to operate and maintain the system on an ongoing basis.

The student project has highlighted several improvements that could make a significant difference. In the coming years, UNSW-GWI looks forward to working with Love Mercy to help implement some of the student solutions.

The second team were tasked with solving an entirely different but equally important challenge:  developing a sampling protocol for microplastics in highly-impacted waterways in Indonesia, China, Fiji and India. The aim was to develop microplastic sampling protocols to be used by future UNSW students who will travel to these countries to investigate microplastic abundance under the Australian Government’s New Colombo Mobility Plan Program in 2020.

Microplastics in marine and terrestrial environments are of increasing concern for environmental health, human wellbeing and integrity of the food chain, and they need to be captured and removed to minimise the negative impacts of plastic on the environment. However, before steps are taken to remove microplastics, it is important to understand their abundance in the environment.  

As part of their project, the second team of UNSW engineers defined the need for microplastics sampling, evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of available methods and shortlisted two particular methods for further investigation. They then built a prototype sampling net from locally available materials and tested it in Sydney’s Parramatta river—a major source of microplastics into Sydney Harbour.

The practical learnings from the activities undertaken in the Parramatta River were then applied to a theoretical case study on the Citarum River in Indonesia, one of the potential locations for student visits in 2020. The case study was conducted with the aim of identifying potential issues with project implementation, country-specific logistics, and the current state of microplastic pollution, and a  finalised protocol was  developed that could be provided to New Colombo Plan students on the ground to bring them quickly up to speed.

As part of the course, both student teams presented their preliminary findings to a panel of industry engineers with humanitarian experience, including Chelsea Hayward and Dominic Peters from Jacobs, Carla Frankel from BMT and Gabrielle McGill from ARUP. These experts drew on their diverse professional experiences, shared insights and provided feedback and guidance to the students to assist with finalising their projects.

My experience this trimester has showed me that UNSW engineering students are capable of exceptional outcomes when given support and purpose

Dr Amos Branch, Course Coordinator

Dr Amos Branch, Research Associate in the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering's Water Research Centre (WRC), was responsible for coordinating the course. He said that the high level of enthusiasm, creativity and engineering skills displayed by the project teams was inspiring.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with the teams, and preliminary feedback has demonstrated that the context of working on real problems with a humanitarian focus is highly motivating to the students,” said Dr Branch.

“My experience this trimester has showed me that UNSW engineering students are capable of exceptional outcomes when given support and purpose.”

Dr Branch also thanked the many partners who were involved in the course for offering their time, expertise and support.

“I have to thank my peers from industry, Chelsea Hayward, Carla Frankel, Dominic Peters and Gabrielle McGill, for graciously giving up their valuable time to help inspire and guide the students. I would like to thank Caitlin Barrett and Cassi Bourke from Love Mercy Foundation for providing on going advice and information, and Dr Andrew Dansie for contributing his expert advice to the microplastics project. Finally, this course would not exist without the initial development provided by Dr Fiona Johnson and continual support of Dr James Hayes,” said Dr Branch.


Project teams:

Team 1
Danika Smith, Alice Hood, Bronte Bishop, Eashan Sharma, Timothy Lee
Midway Project Presentation - Team 1 

Team 2
Bijil Subhash, Jack Ka Hei Pun, Kirishanth Sangarappillai and Khushal Polepalle.
Midway Project Presentation - Team 2

Image (top): The ENGG4102 microplastics investigation team holding their custom made, prototype neuston net for high volume environmental sampling.  L-R: Bijil Subhash, Jack Pun, Kirishanth Sangarappillai and Khushal Polepalle.

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