Internationally, a trend is expanding whereby innovators turn their creativity and intellect towards solving problems in developing countries and supporting people from around the world. The solutions developed are producing technologies directly improving the wellbeing of the poor, marginalised, under-served, and those within disaster-hit communities, who lack the means to address pressing problems. Women are often at the forefront of this humanitarian engineering movement. Here are the stories of five women who are putting their personal energies forward towards solving some of the world’s biggest challenges and supporting the world’s most vulnerable people.
Senior Engineer (Team Leader) GHD / RedR roster member
When Camilla Bachet was 16, she travelled to Papua New Guinea and saw firsthand the struggles and challenges people faced getting basic necessities, such as clean water, shelter and education. During her first year as a graduate engineer at GHD, she learned from a colleague about RedR how to combine her engineering career with her passion for humanitarian work.
After gaining experience in the engineering field here in Australia, Camilla was deployed across the world with RedR Australia to undertake solving challenging in developing communities. In 2018 she spent three months in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, working with UNHCR as a WASH (water and sanitation health) officer for the Rohingya refugee crisis. Camilla identified water availability as a major issue in the refugee camp and set to work to locate water sources that could be distributed to the refugees and the host community. She ran WASH technical working groups, designed water storages to enable the camps to store enough water for the five month long dry season and piloted sewer networks in the transit centre and new camp where the refugees in the high-risk areas would be relocated. “The role was challenging and rewarding, as I could see the improvement in the WASH situation in the camps through the work I implemented for UNHCR,” says Camilla of her time in Bangladesh. “(We must) respect and work with the culture and politics of the host country, as without following their procedures, it can take a long time to gain approval or assistance, which reduces the impact and urgency of the emergency work,” she says. Humanitarian engineering is challenging work. It’s not for the faint-hearted. More often, the challenges come from the situation and environment rather than the technical engineering itself.
At GHD, Camilla is currently undertaking her most significant project in Australia to date: the functional, detailed design and coordination of the modernisation of the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District as part of a $2Bn Commonwealth funded project, the largest irrigation project in Australia, generating water savings throughout Northern Victoria.
Head of Community Program (International & Australia), Engineers Without Borders Australia
Heidi Michael has spent much of her career dedicated to Humanitarian Engineering in Australia and Asia Pacific region. She first discovered the field when selecting a thesis project for her environmental engineering degree and was offered a research project from Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to assess drinking water quality in Timor-Leste. Immediately she saw how her engineering knowledge and skills could be applied for social and environmental benefit. From that first project, she was hooked. After building her technical skills after university, she was drawn again to a water and sanitation opportunity in Timor-Leste.
Heidi’s favourite project is the EWB Sanitation in Challenging Environments project in Cambodia. As the lead designer of the program, she and her team work across the sector, with communities and grassroots organisations to trial sanitation technical solutions. She works with the Cambodian government and various sector agencies to improve technical standards and to influence policy change. “The engineering aspect of working with communities is not a stand-alone solution. It requires consideration and engagement with the broader ecosystem to ensure sustainable outcomes,” says Heidi. “What may seem on the surface to be relatively straightforward community challenges, they are likely marred by political or social constraints, market access, and environmental impacts. To address the broader ecosystem constraints, cross-sectoral partnerships are key. Seeking collaborators and partners is also critical for sustainable outcomes.”
Director, Taylor Professional Services
Elizabeth Taylor is a force to be reckoned with. Currently, she is the Chair of the Cambodian Children’s Trust Australia, RedR Australia and RedR International. She is also the Deputy Chair, Washington Accord, International Engineering Alliance. These posts are in addition to her consulting work with various organisations on education and asset management.
Elizabeth spent 10 years in design and construction management before joining the University of Technology Sydney as the Women in Engineering Coordinator before moving into academia. She entered the Humanitarian Engineering field in 1998 when she was asked to join the Board of RedR Australia. “Determining the needs of a community in crisis provides valuable insight into how we should approach the definition phase of any engineering project or system,” says Elizabeth. “Humanitarian work underscores the imperative of diversity and the use of systems thinking to optimise decisions.”
She has always engaged in diverse pro-bono work. Within Engineers Australia, this has included the Accreditation Board Chair, the Sydney Division President, Chair of the National Women in Engineering Committee, Chair of Engineers Media , and membership of two Code of Ethics reviews.
Lecturer, The University of Sydney
Dr Jacqueline Thomas is passionate about improving peoples’ lives and protecting the environment, as evidenced by her research into water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) in developing countries. “For me having an impact was the main driving force behind my career path, rather than any person,” says Dr. Thomas. She has a Bachelor of Science with honours in microbiology and a Bachelor of Arts in politics and international relations from the University of New South Wales, followed by a PhD in Environmental Engineering in conjunction with the US Environmental Protection Agency and UNSW.
Whilst working as a policy analyst for the Water Unit with the NSW Health Department, which included exposure to remote Aboriginal communities, she came to understand firsthand the critical importance of effective translation of research into policy and practice. Dr Thomas followed her passion and started a WaSH research group at the Ifakara Health Institute – an NGO based in rural Tanzania, where she lived and worked for nearly four years. “A key pivotal moment in my journey into the profession was having the courage to follow my research passion and move to Africa to work for a little non-government organisation, for virtually no money. Leaving Australia and working with international researchers from around the world at an early stage in my career has been invaluable,” she comments.
In 2016, Dr Thomas joined the University of Sydney to teach in the new Humanitarian Engineering major, the first of its kind in Australia. Dr Thomas maintains active research collaborations with partners in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. One of the current projects she is also working on in Fiji is quite exciting. The project takes a “planetary health” approach to solving the complex factors that lead to repeat outbreaks of the water-based diseases of Typhoid Fever, Leptospirosis and Dengue Fever in communities in Fiji. The team who is working on the project consists of ecologists, public health specialists, social scientists and engineers. Understanding the extent to which disrupted natural ecosystems result in poorer public health is very valuable. Dr Thomas’s aim is to develop policies that protect the environment in order to prevent illness.
Investment Analyst, Right Click Capital
While in university researching her engineering thesis, Rebecca Watts, identified the opportunity for solar energy to provide clean, affordable and reliable electricity to rural households in Cambodia. With Engineers Without Borders, she secured support to expand the project and install solar energy systems throughout communities in rural Cambodia. The project provided lights, access to mobile phones, televisions and fans to families who were previously in the dark. With access to electricity, children can now read and do their homework at night. English and Maths classes are held after hours, women feel safer at night, and the local shops can stay open longer. The project was not just about increasing access to electricity, which on its own has huge benefits for health, education and safety, but taking an integrated and holistic approach to creating sustainable livelihoods for the community. “While working in Cambodia I learnt that collaboration with the local community ensured the solar technology was sustainable, appropriate and met the communities’ needs,” says Rebecca. “Also, that it was implemented in an innovative, community-centred way that promotes accessibility, educates the local community about use and maintenance, and builds local capacity.”
Rebecca is an avid humanitarian engineer and spent two years with Engineers Without Borders. Today, she is on the Venture Capital Investment team at Right Click Capital, backing high-growth, technology-based companies. She is passionate about women in technology and a strong advocate for the importance of youth in shaping the future.