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Engineering Healthier Communities in Timor-Leste

For more than a year, the remote town of Lospalos has been home to Engineers Without Borders professional, Tim Kuiper. In October 2014, Tim left his home in Geelong, Australia to move to Timor-Leste and work with Plan International’s Water and Sanitation (WASH) Programme.

Tim has been working in communities that have never had access to running water, where literacy levels are low and where toilets are rare.

“Having lived, worked and travelled in many developing countries I had personally seen the poverty and need first hand. I realize the importance of exchanging ideas and sharing knowledge, wisdom, culture and experiences to make a difference,” Tim said.

After visiting more than 35 countries, Tim decided to move to Timor-Leste and apply his engineering skills in nation where 34% of people need to walk for more than 30 minutes to get water.

“My role has been to ensure families can access clean drinking water, have access to toilets and know how to build and maintain pipes, tanks and water supply systems,” says Tim, who has been working with his WASH colleagues from both Plan International and partner organization Fraterna.

Tim Kuiper training youth in Aileu to make toilets.

“The most rewarding part of being an EWB (Engineers Without Borders) is seeing running water in communities that previously had to walk long distances to get water, making huge differences in the lives of people,” Tim said.

“A close second would be the toilets being built at schools that previously were without toilets, meaning students didn’t need to defecate in their surrounding environment around their school.”

A typical day could involve conducting technical surveys and feasibly studies, monitoring and inspecting construction and fixing pipes and taps. Training his colleagues is also a big part of his position and he’s taught them everything from how to use computer software to how to build a toilet and calculating the rate of water flow.

Working in a remote community has challenges, both personal and professional. It’s an 8 hour motorbike ride to the capital Dili and there’s no coffee or chocolate for sale. Life runs on “rubber time” – so being patient and flexible is an important part of daily life.

“Work practices are really back to basic. Something like cutting a steel pipe that would take 5 minutes with an angle grinder can take up to 2 hours with a hacksaw, but everybody seems content to do it this way," Tim explains.

“Trenches are dug with pure man power, even if they are kilometers long, using shovels and picks and metal bars that have been hammered to a point to break up the rocks. The communities are surprisingly very efficient at this sort of manual labor and do it with a smile."

The job, however, has its rewards. “Assessing a gravity water system where water had stopped flowing, we found the water level at the spring was too low and thus the water was not flowing. In a few weeks time this would not be an issue with the wet season on its way, for the mean time we just threw some big rocks into the catchment area to raise the water level, this made the water flow again through the pipes. Sometimes a very simple solution can have a massive impact.”

“I also helped to install the first water pump in a community that they had ever had. This brought joy to so many people that they could just pump water directly into their village. This is the rewarding part of the job, seeing the difference you are making at the community level. This community is now building a tank and toilets are being built at the school, but it all started with this water pump,” Tim said.

What are the biggest sanitation problems that people face?

“The most common problem with water is communities can’t directly drink it, water must be boiled, even if has come directly from a spring. Water can be far from villages, so it’s often the women and children who spend a lot of time carrying water to and from the water source. The water constructions in the villages we work in reduce this time and effort.”

“The biggest sanitation issue is that people defecate in the open, not in toilets, diseases that are so preventable with the stopping of this practice. Plan International and Fraterna are currently investing a lot of time into Community Lead Total Sanitation (CLTS) in all the villages we work in, which encourages people to build toilets and wash their hands and this can dramatically change a community."

Plan International's WASH programme is currently funded by the European Union and Australian Aid.