A 'Real' Engineering Summer Work Experience

Southern is one of our student members of our Working With Communities team. He's an engineering student at the University of Canterbury and a long time volunteer with EWBNZ. He recently completed a month in Vanuatu shadowing Matt King, the Project Facilitator and Technical Mentor for the Sanitation in Challenging Environments project. He told us about his summer there.

Southern, helping work on plumbing to the Septic Tank

My first week was very interesting, I think there is always a fear of the unknown and this kicked in for me while getting off the plane. Thankfully, Matt was at the airport making the transition to island life so much smoother. Being picked up by quad bike from an airport was a new and interesting experience but one that put a smile on my face.

I was quickly integrated into the Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) team based in the Live & Learn offices. The WASH team is run through a collaborative approach between Live & Learn, EWB Australia and EWBNZ. During the first week, we conducted a six-monthly check-up of portable toilets that had been installed for two people with disabilities. They had nothing to say but good things, and their quality of life had certainly improved. It was nice to see how much they appreciated what we were doing. 

Checking in on Bush Toilets

During this first week I also had the chance to meet one of the local construction teams building a shower and toilet combination, running to a septic tank. It was interesting to see the local construction techniques and their ability to improvise.

The Team busy at work

Later in the week, I got the chance to apply some of my engineering knowledge. The septic tanks had been constructed to standard sizes there but no one had crunched the numbers, so the level of treatment provided and how often the sludge should be removed were both unknown. I’ll admit I didn’t know how to calculate these things either, but I think one of the best things I’ve learnt at university is knowing how to find information and apply it. Part of the design brief was to convey the information clearly to the construction team, so the next step was the creation of clear drawings that anybody could follow.

Checking the Level of The Soakaway Pit

It’s strange how quickly the body adapts to change. In my second week in Port Vila I had already become quite accustomed to waving down a local bus, half understanding the local language Bislama (it’s a pidgin English language) and shopping at the local market. Half understanding the language does not imply speaking, which I was still very poor at. I was still working on the standard designs for the septic tanks and toilet structure. I’d found it more challenging than I had anticipated as the designs needed to fit with local material available, be as cost effective as possible, and reduce the work of the construction team’s labour as they are only using hand tools. I now understand the challenging environment as part of Matt's placement there.

Matt and I visited the construction team a few times through this week, they were still in the process of completing the bathroom. To my disappointment the septic tank was leaking water, we had filled it as a trial run for over the weekend. I’ve now seen how hard it can be to isolate a leak in a buried tank. It’s also much harder in Vanuatu as the client had partially build the toilet and septic before the construction team took the job and the quality of the clients’ workmanship can vary incredibly. Luckily, the leak wasn’t very large and the quantity of inflow water would offset the leak without compromising the design too much. Once again, the challenging environments thought popped into my head.

Week three arrived very quickly, there always seemed to be something to do in Vanuatu, if I wasn’t working I was exploring the island, there is amazing snorkelling, beaches, food, and people there. Matt was away this week in Australia helping EWBAU. This required me to step up and fill Matt’s shoes, managing the construction team and responding to anything that came up. Matt’s shoes seemed pretty big at the time but it was an amazing learning opportunity, no better way to learn than through “trial by fire”. Things went smoothly thankfully and I put this down to the Live and Learn team who were extremely supportive. The previous week L&L had brought on a new team member to the WASH team (Shemmy) to help support Matt, thankfully he was able to help me too when I didn’t understand something.

Week four was my last week in Vanuatu, it was approaching Christmas and the end of the quarter. This meant the teams were mostly completing evaluations and quarterly reports. It was interesting to see this process in action. They took the time to reflect on the previous quarter looking at what went wrong and right and how to improve. From what I had observed I felt the sanitation enterprises still had a bit to improve on and surprisingly they highlighted the same things for improvement during their reflection. I think this showed a good comprehension of what was working and what wasn’t, essential in any business.

Week four also saw the completion of the toilet and bathroom by the construction team, the toilet was basic, but well-built. The client was happy as it was a marked improvement. Sadly, the team hadn’t secured a following job so were fixing up odd jobs this week.

The completed Shower/Toilet Block build

It’s impossible to write four weeks worth of experiences in a short article, but I hope its provide some insight into the work EWB is doing in Vanuatu. To finish I’d like to thank a couple of people who made my trip enjoyable and possible: Jen, Carys, Matt, Shemmy, Sumapeta construction crew, and the Live & Learn office.