Photo: RedR Australia/Arlene Bax

Engineering a Better World

At home it might have been beautiful one day and perfect the next but where Paul de Launay was working, it was usually horrifying one day and traumatic the next.

Not many people spend 18 months constructing infrastructure for two million people displaced by a genocide in Sudan and then get to manage a council works program in Queensland’s beautiful Whitsundays, but that’s the kind of life RedR Australia’s Paul de Launay has lived.

“Sudan was a scene of guerrilla civil war of bestial brutality. Hordes of armed groups mounted on horseback would descend on peaceful farming villages killing indiscriminately and burning the thatch tukul roofs. The survivors would flee to the comparative safety of larger nearby settlements,” Paul said.

“One such incident occurred in 2004. Approximately 8,000 people arrived on the outskirts of the town almost overnight and camped on a few hectares of disused government forestry land. They had no shelter and only the clothes they wore and there were some donkeys lying around dying of bullet wounds when I inspected the site,” the civil engineer said.

Paul subsequently worked with another engineer to design a camp site, drill water bores and arrange shelter across 20 hectare of donated land.

He says the 1989 Newcastle earthquake probably changed his life because that’s when he responded to his first emergency.

“I was living in Newcastle then and working as a geotechnical engineer. I carried out a lot of structural evaluations to determine if buildings should be demolished or not,” Paul said.

A decade later, he joined RedR Australia’s Humanitarian Roster and found himself working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cambodia, where he was a the project manager for a range of infrastructure projects including schools and health clinics. He was soon hooked on humanitarian engineering.

 “This work is extremely challenging and for an engineer the main challenge is to solve technical problems with the resources at hand. Working in places where there is a shortage of resources teaches you to be creative in the same way pioneers in Australia were. It requires real innovation to successfully solve a problem with limited resources, from an angle no-one has thought of before, and it’s what attracts me to this work, as well as the enormous impact you can have on people’s lives,” Paul said.

“Whilst working with UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund) in Sudan, I designed a portable school that had a steel pipe frame with a canvas thrown over it and could cater for 50 children. It could be easily dismantled and carried on donkeys and camels and it could become permanent with the addition of mud walls around the pipes and a corrugated iron roof. It’s probably the innovation I’m most proud of and UNICEF ended up making more than 2000 of them.”

“It could be assembled in about half an hour, without any tools, by unskilled people, using techniques the locals were familiar with and it didn’t deplete any natural resources from the desert,” Paul explained.

Importantly, Paul’s lateral thinking benefited Sudanese children across the country. It enabled them to get an education despite the nomadic lifestyle of their tribes and the war, which often forced them to flee at short notice.

“When I arrived in Darfur, at the start of the war, only around 15% of girls were enrolled in schools but after we had distributed these classrooms, this climbed to just over 40%,” Paul said.

In 2009, Paul joined the Gold Coast City Council as coordinator of major capital works projects. The years he had spent working in humanitarian contexts had honed his innovation skills and this was recognised, in 2013, when he won the research, development and innovation category of Engineers Australia’s Engineering Excellence Award and the Australian Water Association’s Infrastructure Innovation Project Award for his work with the council.

But the Sudanese weren’t the last vulnerable people to benefit from this acclaimed innovator.

“In Lebanon a few years ago, I designed a latrine for the Syrian refugees. It was comprised of iron sheeting without any steel frame. We put it in a curve so it was self-supporting and it had a rainwater tank attached for hand washing. It could be flat packed and transported and only cost about $200 a unit. It was simple, but no one had done it before, and it enabled the population to stay free from disease while camping in parks and deserted buildings, as there was no official refugee camp there.”

Paul recently deployed with RedR Australia to UNICEF in Vanuatu and is now managing the rehabilitation of water infrastructure that was destroyed by Cyclone Pam last year. The Australian Government is funding Paul’s deployment and the project, which is managed by the Vanuatu Government’s Department of Water.

Supplying water and sanitation to a population of 270,000 scattered across a country of 82 islands presents different challenges to managing sewerage projects on the Gold Coast.

“Vanuatu’s islands are on coral structures so the water is hard and has high levels of calcium. The aquafer is shallow and, when you are close to the shores of the islands, you need to make sure you don’t get salt water intrusion into the aquafer. There’s also a lot of volcanic activity on a number of islands which causes the water to be hotter underground and you can get water that’s not far off boiling point which affects the type of seals you need to use in pumps as it could damage them,” Paul explained.

The project is focused on rainwater harvest tanks, direct gravity feeds from existing water sources and the replacement of hand pumps that go into bores.

“I’d like to encourage other engineers to think about how they can contribute to this work. If they can’t deploy at the moment, then to consider donating to RedR or joining their Knowledge Point program which offers an opportunity to provide a couple of hours of their time through expert advice to people in the field like me. We are usually working alone in the field, without technical backup. To have a resource to fall back on is useful, technically and psychologically” he said.

Although humanitarian engineers have to spend time apart from their families, Paul wouldn’t have it any other way. There aren’t many jobs at home that offer you the opportunity to manage global public works that alleviate suffering and build resilience in disaster prone countries.

Paul is the recipient of several awards including two Engineers Australia Engineering Excellence Awards and RedR Commendations and Certificates of Appreciation from Australia’s Prime Minister and HRH Princess Anne for his humanitarian work.