The Anatomy of a Humanitarian Engineer

What’s inside the innovators who deliver compassion and champion social change?


What is a Humanitarian Engineer?

Simply put, a humanitarian engineer creates technologies that help people. While all engineers work to solve problems, the field is distinct from other engineering disciplines that focus on the core of the technology, and humanitarian engineering focuses on people and communities to ask how the engineer’s skills and innovation might help vulnerable, marginalised, under-served, and disaster-hit communities. Humanitarian Engineering pays particular attention to sustainability and appropriateness.  The application of human centred design principles focuses on human needs first, contrasted perhaps to the traditional engineering focus on resource extraction, industrial conversion, commercial infrastructure, product delivery, and sales of goods and services to commercial markets.

Some examples of humanitarian technologies that a humanitarian engineer might create for developing communities are community-scale off-grid solar electricity generation, irrigation, aquaponics, healthcare, shelter, non-polluting lighting, heating, and cooking methods, clean water and sanitation.  Appropriate digital technologies are also entering humanitarian applications.


Parts of a Great Humanitarian Engineer

Being an engineer requires special knowledge, skills, and tools. It is a demanding career, but it is very rewarding to see solutions develop from intangible ideas to real world impact that changes lives.  Here are several components that make up the special anatomy of a successful humanitarian engineer:



A Creative Mind

In order to think of new, innovative solutions to humanitarian situations and even humanitarian crises, engineers need to think creatively. Although a lot of engineering is technical analysis and logic, to be a natural problem solver, the innovator needs to combine many diverse technical and non-technical skills as well as imaginative human insights to solve problems and deliver creative solutions.


Off-the-Charts Communication Skills

Humanitarian engineers need to communicate complex ideas into plain language to ensure others understand. Under crisis conditions, this skill becomes even more vital. Keeping a cool head under pressure is a must for a humanitarian engineer.


An Aptitude for Teamwork

Although a great engineer in any field can benefit from collaboration skills, a humanitarian engineer frequently collaborates across teams, across industries, and even across organisations. A humanitarian engineer needs to be able to inspire team members to contribute towards a common goal.


A Commitment to Growth

Engineers never stop learning. Technology is continually evolving. Developments are evolving rapidly in the industry, as changes in techniques, technology, and materials are frequent and rapid. A great humanitarian engineer needs to know what is out there now, as well as what’s coming next.


A Passion for Serving the Global Community

Are you committed to improving the condition of humanity? Great! Are you committed to solving problems with innovation and a bit of elbow grease? Then you’d be perfect for humanitarian engineering! Humanitarian engineers understand that they can have more impact in the broader world around them. They find joy in helping others improve and thrive.

The anatomy of a humanitarian engineer is not one-size-fit all. Anyone with a desire to use their engineering skills for the greater good can contribute to humanitarian causes across the globe.

Why is Humanitarian Engineering Important?

Natural disasters such as wildfires in Indonesia, Cyclone Haiyan in the Philippines, and the recent earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi, Indonesia are tragic events with high humanitarian costs. Each of these events costed billions of dollars and affected hundreds of thousands of lives. In addition to sudden natural disasters, other tragedies, such as the massive refugee crisis from the war in Syria and droughts across South Africa, demand creative solutions to problems. Humanitarian engineering approaches pressing issues with technology-driven solutions across disciplines. 


Real Examples of Humanitarian Engineering

Doctors and lawyers are known for their charitable contributions to humanity, but what about engineers? Engineering is a powerful and diverse field, one that has improved the lives of countless humans across the globe. Isn’t it time we rethought our approach to solving the world’s problems?

Here are some real examples of humanitarian engineering:

Water, sanitation and hygiene

More than 700 local emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) workers responding to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh received training in monsoon preparedness and response thanks to the work of Tai Ring Teh. Through Australia Assists, Tai was deployed by RedR Australia to UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar for eight months, where he worked to build local WASH capacity. Tai ran training in emergency preparedness and response to monsoons, including conducting 12 simulation exercises in the challenging weather conditions brought by the Bangladeshi monsoon season. 

“When I arrived, local NGOs and engineers were unable to implement WASH infrastructure to capacity. By October, the whole thing had turned around and the capacity was almost on par with international NGOs. That is the key difference my training made.” Building Local WASH Capacity in Bangladesh, RedR Australia



“We went to India to work with local and international organisations to carry out local studies on wastewater treatment. This project provided individual toilets to individual homes across Maharashtra. Since poor sanitation causes many preventable but deadly diseases, their efforts will significantly improve the lives of millions of people.”  Civil engineers, Lucinda Hazell and Sakhi Shah



When the Bangladeshi dry season loomed, tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar faced the threat of water scarcity. To help prepare for the dry period, civil engineer Camilla Bachet was deployed to UNHCR, through Australia Assists by RedR Australia. Here Camilla assisted in the design of a new water reservoir and supplementary temporary dams. The innovative designs of Camilla and her team assisted in ensuring as many as possible in Teknaf, a southern district of Cox’s Bazar, had enough water to survive five months without rain. At a minimum, the reservoir is estimated to provide up to 20,000 people with 20 litres of water per day. 

“In an emergency, everything is important, but because water is so essential to life, it is a very interesting and rewarding field for me to work in.” Wash Engineering for Water Security in Cox’s Bazar, RedR Australia 


Clean Energy

“We have partnered with TONIBUNG, an NGO serving the remote communities of Malaysian Borneo. In 2013, 33% of rural Sarawak and Sabah were still not connected to the electricity grid. Over an amazing 5-year collaboration we have worked with the indigenous communities in Borneo’s Sabah rainforest, offering training on building solar and micro hydro systems to provide energy access.” Engineers Without Borders



Working to provide safe and dignified housing for Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazar was engineer Paul de Launay, deployed to UNHCR through Australia Assists by RedR Australia. As UNHCR’s shelter focal point, Paul led a team of national and international staff comprising engineers with expertise in camp planning, structural engineering, shelter design, geotechnical engineering, drone photography, GIS, mapping and AutoCAD. Together the team worked to reduce the risks of landslides and flooding that threatened shelters located on hilly land composed of sandy silt, which can become unstable during the heavy rains of the monsoon season.  

“We feared spontaneous landslides, which would cause heavy casualties, and worked tirelessly through the wet season, in ankle deep mud, moving 40,852 people from high risk areas.” Deployees work tirelessly through monsoon season in Cox’s Bazar, RedR Australia


Disaster Relief

On Sept. 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck the Caribbean island of Dominica. Moving from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in 24 hours, Maria pounded the island with 260-km-per-hour winds. An estimated 90 percent of buildings were destroyed, power lines and trees were damaged, and landslides hit across the island. Over thirty people were killed, and thousands were left without a home. 

Engineers Siu and Mike arrived in Dominica a few days after the hurricane. Teams of engineers conducted assessments of roads and bridges. They inspected over 30,000 structures across the country in less than 90 days. Their actions led to the revision of the nation’s building code.

There are numerous ways engineers can use their skills to help humanity. 


What can you do?

Be part of the solution at the Humanitarian Innovation Hackathon 16-18 AUGUST 2019.

The Humanitarian Innovation Hackathon is a weekend-long event, taking place in Sydney, NSW. This event is designed for university students to work collaboratively in cross-discipline teams to create technology-driven solutions for pressing humanitarian challenges. Participants will be asked to identify practical solutions for real and current problems that are submitted by international humanitarian response organisation, RedR Australia.

How can innovation solve the world’s most pressing humanitarian issues?

We are working to find out.

This story is featured in the 2 August 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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