In January 2013 Sean Keown, an engineer from our Brisbane office was selected to take part in the Engineers Without Borders Dialogues on Development study tour in Cambodia. Sean writes about the experiences he had:
As part of Arup’s community partnering program, in January I was lucky enough to be a participant on the 2013 Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Dialogues on Development study tour to Cambodia. The trip was a three week humanitarian engineering study tour that included several site visits to many of EWB’s partner projects throughout Cambodia. The program was attended by representatives from a number of leading engineering firms and universities from across Australia and was facilitated by EWB staff with expertise in development. The itinerary consisted of several workshops in which we learnt about development theory and the issues faced with engineering projects in developing countries. The topics covered included appropriate technology, capacity building, human rights, “volunteerism”, corruption, child safety, NGO operation and gender issues.
One of the first partners we visited was Rainwater Cambodia, a local NGO that designs and constructs rainwater harvesting and water supply schemes in rural areas. EWB has provided technical assistance and strategic planning for Rainwater Cambodia for a number of years. At this visit we learnt about appropriate design and keeping things simple to reduce costs and keep operational skill and maintenance requirements low. Rainwater Cambodia also explained the importance of community education in regards to hygiene and sanitation. We visited a local school where they have been involved with hygiene education and installed a stormwater harvesting scheme that included a handwashing station. The principal told us that since the educational programs and handwashing station were introduced student sick days have significantly declined.
EWB took us to visit the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO), one of their first partners. The people of Cambodia have long struggled with the impacts of polio and landmines left over from years of civil war. In the early days of CSPO, EWB provided biomedical engineers to the school to help develop their curriculum and train their lecturers. EWB now has no current volunteers at the school and this is a great thing! Remaining consistent with EWB’s objectives of capacity building and being able to step away from projects once they become self-sustaining, all CSPO lecturers are now locals and expat involvement is no longer required. What’s more, the school has become a training hub for many international students from developing nations who are able to take their new skills and work in prosthetics and orthotics in their home countries.
I was also fortunate enough to spend a few days staying in the floating villages of the Tonle Sap and observe the projects being undertaken by EWB’s partner Live and Learn. The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is home to over 1.5 million people who live in floating structures on the lake. Live and Learn are working on a number of pilot projects in the region involving floating toilets, biogas and floating gardens. Traditionally, the local inhabitants of the lake dump all waste, including sewerage, into the lake and also use the lake to bathe, wash dishes, and brush their teeth. As fish numbers have declined and the lake water quality has worsened, the communities have experienced significant health issues related to poor water quality and malnutrition. For a number of years EWB and Live and Learn have worked together to develop a low-cost, marketable floating toilet design and have installed a number of prototypes in the community. They have also developed floating vegetable gardens to diversify the food source of the locals and floating biodigesters to improve waste quality and provide biogas for cooking.
The dialogues tour was a fantastic opportunity to learn about development and observe humanitarian engineering projects in action. The diverse nature of our group meant that we could engage in stimulating discussions and learn from each other’s differing background and experiences. Learning about EWB’s approach to community development and the importance they place on capacity building, community empowerment and appropriate technology has given me a new insight into best practice development work.
One particularly poignant moment that sticks in my mind was meeting a smiley old lady in one of our visits to a rural area. The lady appeared near giddy with excitement as she ran up to greet us all at her front gate. She excitedly ushered us through to her backyard where she proceeded to show us her new water pump that EWB’s local partner had installed. The lady stood there and laughed at us all as we tried to figure out exactly how her pump worked. Although my Khmer leaves a little to be desired, I am pretty sure she was saying to us: “What so confusing? You push the handle in like this and water comes out, see….” This for me epitomised what EWB is all about. The pride the woman had in her new piece of technology and the extent to which it improved her quality of life was visible. The simple pump made out of a couple of bits of fabric, some piping and a wire was enough to confuse a team of engineers who have become accustomed to (over) complicated designs and advanced technology by its shear simplicity, and it was the perfect piece of equipment for the job.
Thank you to Arup, the community partnering committee and EWB for this great opportunity. Please contact me if you would like more information/photos on any of these projects or the dialogues tour. Other partnership organisations we visited and learnt about included:
- Digital Divide Data – a social enterprise that provides IT training and employment;
- Sahmakum Teang Tnaut – a local human rights and advocacy NGO;
- East Meets West – an NGO that involved in water and sanitation projects;
- Cambodian Rural Development Team – a local volunteerism company; and
- The Royal University of Phnom Penh
The dialogues tour was a fantastic opportunity to learn about development and observe humanitarian engineering projects in action.