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South Australian engineer leads innovation at Engineers without Borders

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Julian O’Shea is part of a multinational team of engineers who believe everyone in their profession should be an agent of change for a more just and environmentally sustainable world.

Engineers without Borders (Australia) is a member of a federation that operates in over 50 countries.

Their activities in this region are as diverse as working with the University of Adelaide in South Australia to develop solar-powered water purification, designing pipelines in East Timor and helping to develop housing in Vietnam, but it’s their project to turn human waste into cooking fuel in Cambodia that has really turned heads.

Long Sokhon, one of the early users of the biodigester project. Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia / Photographer: Jeff McAllister

Long Sokhon, one of the early users of the biodigester project. Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia / Photographer: Jeff McAllister

 

As director of the EWB Institute, O’Shea is responsible for the organisation’s research, education, engagement and innovation programs.

“We use innovative technology to fight poverty in Asia and Australia,” says O’Shea , who has just returned from Cambodia, where he ran a Design Summit Program in the capital, Phnom Penh, and in Kampot Province.

“That program is looking at the rehabilitation of mangrove forests,” he explains. “These have been degraded by land usage, especially salt farms, but they are vital to the region’s marine ecosystems.”

Cambodia is a country facing unique challenges, says O’Shea.

“It has had a pretty rough modern history, thanks to the Cambodian Civil War and the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

“The country’s whole educated class was eliminated, and they have had to rebuild the education sector from nothing.

“They still have a way to go, but they now have universities that are teaching engineering, and EWB is helping with things like curriculum development.”

Another of EWB’s Cambodian programs is on Tonle Sap lake, Southeast Asia’s largest body of freshwater. It is the heart of a highly productive area with one of the largest freshwater fisheries in the world, on which over a million people are dependent.

“Many of the inhabitants live on floating villages, which have no sewage systems or sanitation management,” says O’Shea.

The resulting flow of effluent into the lake can become a threat to human health and to the lake’s ecosystems, especially during the dry season, when the surface area of the lake may shrink by up to 90 per cent.

EWB has developed a floating bio-digester, which breaks down human waste to produce methane that can be used for cooking as a substitute for harvested firewood. And the solid waste the bio-digester produces is free of pathogens and can then be used as a fertiliser back on dry land.

Back in Australia, another major EWB initiative for which O’Shea is responsible is the award-winning EWB Challenge, a program that introduces university engineering students to humanitarian engineering through real-world projects. Sponsored by BHP Billiton, it involves over 8000 Australian engineering students a year.

Last year, participants were challenged to help a rural community in the West African country of Cameroon with engineering solutions to their water supply, sanitation and housing problems.

The EWB Challenge has now grown to an international program, implemented across 52 universities in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and is helping more of tomorrow’s engineers realise that they have the power to reshape our world for the better.

For his work, O’Shea has been recognised as South Australia’s Young Australian of the Year in 2014, and has also garnered many other accolades.

O’Shea studied engineering at the University of Adelaide and an MBA at the University of South Australia.

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