Why I’m not the right person to solve your problems: an engineer in sanitation

I sat in a meeting recently about sanitation prototypes that are being tested in the “real world” – the informal settlements and rural households that they have been designed for, rather than the labs where they were created. As with any early stage testing, the prototypes have problems and it was these problems and the potential solutions that were under discussion at the meeting.

While listening to these challenges, it hit me. As an engineer, I am not the right person to solve sanitation problems. Of course, there are some technical problems with the prototypes – materials that foul in a different way than expected causing downstream problems, control sequences that need adapting to deal with different circumstances – but it is the non-technical challenges that really interested me. Some are focused on the views of individuals, like toilet users being unhappy with human excreta being stored in close proximity to their perched backside; some are linked to the wider community, like jealousy and distrust of the families who have been selected to trial new toilets; some are political, like the wrangling between settlement committees and councillors affiliated to different political parties; and some are linked to the wider economic situation of the area, like the theft and sale of copper wire used for earthing electrical connections. Some of these problems do have a technical aspect and technology may play a part in the solutions but, for the most part, sanitation is a social issue.

So what’s an engineer to do?

First, as an engineer I have to acknowledge that I don’t have all the pieces to complete this jigsaw puzzle.

Next, I have to make sure I am working with the people who can add in the puzzle pieces that I don’t have. The advantage of the prototype testing discussed in this meeting is that there are a wide range of people involved – academics with social science and engineering backgrounds, community development specialists who work closely with the communities where prototypes are being tested, and municipal representatives who can contribute valuable knowledge on the economic and political intricacies of the sanitation issues in these communities. Of course, having those people in the room is not enough in itself, which brings me to…

I have to listen to what they say and understand when I have reached the limits of my own expertise. That is not to say that my views are useless here. However, the solution to every problem is not technical. My softer engineering skills still offer a huge amount of value – a logical approach to problem-solving, an ability to work within a team, and written and spoken communication of complex ideas.

There are several young engineers involved in this testing and I hope that the experience of working with a diverse team will help them to recognise the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration when it comes to overcoming challenges in sanitation. Sanitation is a complex issue and engineers cannot solve these problems alone.

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