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In profile: Niall Earle

Niall Earle believes that all engineers could benefit from a course in Humanitarian Engineering, saying that it offers current and future engineers a new way of seeing the world.This perspective comes from a student nearing the end of his studies who completed two years of his engineering degree before branching out into the arts—and quickly realising that environmental humanities was the missing piece of the puzzle.

"Humanitarian Engineering covers all of the issues that engineers would usually engage with, but it allows you to see these issues through a new lens,” says Niall.“

Niall Earle visited Myanmar in 2019 to design at implement pilot-scale water filtration systems

Niall is currently finishing a double degree in Engineering and Arts at UNSW Sydney. Throughout his studies, he found himself increasingly drawn to the topic of Humanitarian Engineering at UNSW and, more specifically, humanitarian engineering approaches to water.

Engineering with impact

During the second year of his engineering degree, Niall was presented with an opportunity to participate in a water project in Myanmar. With four other students, Niall travelled to Myanmar for two weeks to design and implement pilot-scale water filtration systems at Yangon Technical University and foster key inter-university relationships. Niall describes this experience as “a wonderful opportunity to work in a different cultural landscape and gain insight into how engineering practices can contribute towards safer water outcomes.”

When he returned from Myanmar, Niall was introduced to a UNSW humanitarian engineering student group changing lives through community-driven projects: Impact Engineers. At that time, Impact Engineers had just completed a water treatment project in Sri Lanka and was looking for an Australian project to focus on next.

After returning from a year on exchange in Copenhagen, Niall reconnected with Impact Engineers and became one of two students leading their significant contribution to the community-led Food and Water for Life project in Walgett. Through the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership, they worked with the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, Dhariwaa Elders Group, UNSW Global Water Institute and The George Institute for Global Health to install a thriving community garden in the water-scarce town.

Through Impact Engineers, Niall helped to design and install a drought-proof community garden in Walgett “Working through the partnership in Walgett with a wonderful team of diverse people has been incredible,” says Niall.

“This project goes to the core of what social impact engineering offers in addressing existing inequalities in Australia. Seeing the community garden flourish in the way that it has, with plans to continue growing, has been one of the greatest experiences from my time at UNSW.”

Exploring expert water cultures in Timor-Leste

Niall has recently completed his honours thesis on the topic of Water Cultures and Integrated Water Resource Management in Timor-Leste. He interviewed international experts working on water issues in Timor-Leste to explore the beliefs and practices of these professionals who are trusted to deliver on Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) and Integrated Water Resource Management.

Niall gathered some fascinating insights water experts in Timor-Leste, reflecting the dominant beliefs and practices that influence expert approaches and the impacts of these perspectives on interactions at the local level.

“Approaching questions of water management as politically motivated and historically situated, our research suggests that water professionals are part of a global body of expertise and that the ‘best practice’ models they work with help to institute norms that risk overlooking differing water worldviews,” says Niall.

“Our research suggests that a crucial part of water equity is reconciling the outsider concepts and practices of water with traditional ones, recognising and incorporating the strengths of traditional practices as a step towards IWRM.”

From UNSW Sydney and beyond

Niall counts himself lucky to have had the opportunity to study the way he did, following his interests and finding a path through UNSW Sydney that led him to humanitarian engineering and water issues. His research was supervised by Dr Andrew Dansie, Senior Lecturer in Humanitarian Engineering and Professor Matthew Kearnes, convenor of UNSW’s Environment and Society group and Environmental Humanities programme.

Since 2018, Humanitarian Engineering has been offered through specific courses at UNSW and as of this year, students can enrol in a Minor in Humanitarian Engineering as part of their degree. Niall is thrilled that current and future students have the opportunity to focus on this specific topic to help disadvantaged communities and work towards achieving the United Nations SDG targets.

“It’s great what UNSW has been doing in expanding into the humanitarian field,” says Niall.

“I’d also highly recommend that anyone interested in humanitarian engineering becomes involved with Impact Engineers—it’s an excellent way to broaden your skillset, gain hands-on experience and contribute to meaningful, life-changing projects.”

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