Engineering: a great cultural divide

Dili, East Timor

Mark Taylor spent six months in East Timor hoping to change other peoples lives. They ended up changing his.

 When I first arrived in Dili, capital of Timorleste (East Timor), I wondered about the actions of human beings. It was mid 2009, and Timor was coming out of its last ‘difficult’ period, a period that had subjected its people to rioting in the capital, small militia groups reforming in the jungle, and an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta.

Prime Minister Horta survived this attempt and the country was stabilising however the people remained extremely poor, and the country lingered in the shadow of its powerful neighbour, Indonesia, whose invasion in the 1970s caused fractures that remain through Timor today. Of course these are difficult problems for well meaning aid organizations to solve, but after so many years of foreign aid and with so many foreign officials buzzing around the country, one begins to wonder if we are really very good at helping people at all.

When I was offered a job in Dili I was dubious about being an active participant in all the foreign activity taking place throughout the captial. I was fresh out of university, and wanted to use engineering, and appropriate technology, to help people escape poverty. The job itself was with US-AID, the foreign aid arm of the US government which, to be honest, raised even more concerns for me.

In a moment of clarity, I realised the only way to truly understand how humanity works is to get involved and get my hands dirty. So I took the job.

US-AID were involved in building green houses on farms in the ‘Foho’; the valleys and plateaus where agriculture was barely holding on throughout mountainous Timor. These green houses allow year round farming, and production of higher-value crops which farmers can sell in the larger towns as a middle class emerges again in a more stable economy. My job was to ensure a plentiful supply of clean water, at pressure, for the first two of these green houses.

After surveying the farms to locate permanent water supplies, one group set to work building water towers that would hold a few days water requirements at a 12 metre head to provide the pressure required. We organised an Indonesian specialist to come and build a water ram onsite. This system uses the power of water falling through a small head (developed by building a levee in a nearby creek) to pump a small amount of that water up to the towers. Although the flow was quite small, this solution worked well.

I was interested to see how the Indonesian engineer would get on with the Timorese; would there be any resentment? The Timorese recognise the political and military behaviour of Indonesia for what it is and do not hold it against Indonesian citizens.

I designed a second pumping system that was installed at both sites in early 2010. It is based on the Western Australian designed Sunmill pump, which is a very simple reciprocating, or piston pump. It is essentially a windmill pump system being driven by a DC motor connected to solar panels, instead of being wind driven.

The heavy forestation and undulating landscape meant that traditional wind pumps would not be effective, however the solar resource is particularly effective. The worst solar month still gets an average of five peak sun hours per day, which means at least five hours of good water pumping.

The pumps are a positive displacement type, so they can run very slowly and achieve large heads with relatively low input power. The pump part of the project cost around US$15,000 for the two sites, including all wages, shipping and related costs. Despite the expensive initial outlay, the systems were designed so any components that were likely to wear, or be damaged, could be replaced with locally available, agricultural parts. The pumps have a very open design, so that the mechanism is easily understood and maintenance can be performed with basic tools.

Engineering is a great cultural bridge. The training and technical solutions that we have access to in the west rely on local knowledge to be effective on the ground in developing countries. Despite the language barrier, there are wonderful moments when a local farmer, who has been observing you work, probably wondering what on Earth you are up to, suddenly gets it and steps in to take over. These moments come when local people understand that you are sincere, and are there for them and their community.

The project was a unique and inspiring experience, a life changing one. I spent most of my time out on the farms, and realised that, as Mandela said, the people there are poor because of their circumstances only. These people were some of the brightest and wisest I’ve ever come across, and I had far more to learn from them than they did from me. But it was a two-way exchange and I think this is the secret of aid work; to live with people for a time, to work together and achieve something together. Sometimes engineering makes sense when little else seems to.

Mark Taylor is a sustainability consultant in the NDY Perth office. He joined NDY earlier this year and looks forward being a part of NDY engaging with development and community engineering.