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24 July 2018 Kate Palmer

Earlier this month I attended the Engineers Without Borders New Zealand Annual Conference, which was focused almost exclusively on humanitarian engineering.

It was a spotlight on socially aware engineering practices and highlighted the importance of approaching solutions with a human-centric mind set.

As a young practioner it was incredibly valuable to hear the speakers’ experiences in taking on extreme challenges in remote communities requiring bespoke solutions.

We heard from academics developing human-centred designs while training the incoming professional engineers with a human-centric mind set. We listened to international NGO’s responsible for facilitating the community engagements that are crucial for the success of technical projects. And we learnt from discussions on what New Zealand and South Pacific governments are doing to increase the resilience of communities in some of the most environmentally-vulnerable locations globally.

It was both inspiring and relevant.

As an environmental engineer working mainly in drinking water supply safety and hydraulic modelling, these discussions shone a light on the challenges the industry faces. Many of the presentations focused on aspects of the three waters, predominantly drinking water security and sanitation.

Rural communities across Australia and the Pacific are suffering from unstable drinking water sources as they become increasingly vulnerable to more frequent severe weather events, rising sea levels and population increases. This often goes hand in hand with waste management, as most Pacific nations have limited land available for settlement, let alone space to process and dispose of wastewater without contaminating nearby drinking water sources or other vital resources.

There are extreme challenges being faced by communities all around us in our very specific field. By default, our field has a lot of opportunities to lead innovative design in the face of modern challenges such as climate change, rising sea levels, extreme weather and increasing population. We also have a duty to support our peers in smaller nations who haven’t had the opportunity to develop their technical networks enough to counter these challenges.

One of the key things I’ve learnt is that the way forward is capacity building. Communities need technical experts familiar with the environment and its unique challenges to produce technical solutions that are appropriate, sustainable and embraced.

Currently, WSP Opus project manages the Restoration of Ecosystem Services and Adaptation to Climate Change (RESCCUE) project in Vanuatu, which has helped facilitate recently enacted legislation banning single-use plastics in Vanuatu.

That WSP Opus supports projects focussing on these heavily overlooked but crucial ecological and climate change challenges happening to our Pacific neighbours gives me that purpose that I crave as a millennial.

Interestingly, Susan Freeman-Greene Chief Executive of Engineering New Zealand and keynote speaker pointed out that the millennial generation of rising technical experts are purpose driven. She noted that we need to know that we are working towards something meaningful and for the betterment of our world, which is something that absolutely resonates with me. I may not be working on the project – and fair enough too as a graduate fresh in the industry – but I know that I’m working for a company that is not ignoring the issues that I spend a lot of my spare time learning (and worrying!) about. The fact that there are opportunities to spend my working life on projects that are tackling challenges that I care about, and are the reason I became an engineer, gives me the positive outlook I need to look forward to continuing my career.

About: India Eiloart is an environmental engineer with WSP Opus. Based in Wellington she specialises in three waters investigation and design. India is also the National Marketing Manager for Engineers Without Borders New Zealand (voluntary position), a not-for-profit that aims to create systemic change through humanitarian engineering.