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Aerial view of a fishing village

Humanitarian engineering

Supporting developing communities meet their basic needs
We’re transforming the understanding of how infrastructure and technology can lift marginalised communities out of poverty and promote equitable sustainable development.

More than 750 million people globally live in extreme poverty. For billions of people, basic infrastructure services are out of reach.

Our aim is to develop appropriate and affordable engineering solutions for developing communities to confront emerging and escalating challenges such as migration, climate change, and urbanisation. Using interdisciplinary methods that are grounded in fieldwork, we’re developing new theory of sustainable infrastructure and technology in resource-constrained environments, focusing in areas such as water and sanitation, shelter, energy, and transport.

Our research

Our cross-disciplinary research is unpacking systems at the nexus of engineering, public health, economics, and the social sciences, while our collaborations with industry partners are translating this knowledge into practice.

We focus on the application of engineering and technology in four contexts:

  • engineering in developing communities
  • disaster response and recovery
  • conflict and stabilisation
  • remote areas and Indigenous communities

Our expert: Dr Jacqueline Thomas

Our partners: Edith Cowan University, Fiji Ministry of Health & Medical Services, Fiji National University, World Health Organisation

Funding agency: Australia Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade

Water-borne diseases are endemic in Fiji with 20 reported typhoid outbreaks since 2005, an outbreak of dengue affecting 27,000 in 2013–14 and a three-fold increase in leptospirosis since 2016. This project is developing and testing real-time mobile tools to optimise water, sanitation and catchment management to reduce the incidence of outbreaks. It will also train cross-sectoral teams to improve outbreak response and minimise the impact of water-borne diseases.

Related story: University of Sydney wins $4.5m in DFAT grants

Our expert: Dr Jacqueline Thomas

Our partners: Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA)

Funding agency: UK Department for International Development

Only 10% Dar es Salaam’s four million people are connected to a sewer network. This is typical of many cities in developing countries. Our project aims to evaluate the implementation of four Decentralised Sanitation Systems “DEWATS” developed by BORDA. These sanitation systems are designed to treat waste from on-site sanitation (septic tanks and pit-latrine). The systems recover resources to produce methane gas for cooking and bio-solids for agriculture.

Our expert: Dr Aaron Opdyke

Our partners: Project Concern International

Funding agency: United States Agency for International Development Office for US Foreign Disaster Assistance

This project seeks to assess the long-term impacts of humanitarian assistance in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake to understand the comparative impacts integrated programming on long-term disaster risk and vulnerability. It will produce a guidance manual on the use of integrated approaches for emergency response, recovery, and risk mitigation, intended to inform policy and practice among key humanitarian stakeholders.

Our expert: Dr Aaron Opdyke

Our partners: Ateneo de Manila University, Mindanao State University Marawi

Funding agency: Sydney Southeast Asia Centre

Over 350,000 people were displaced from Marawi City in the Philippines following the conflict between Maute rebels and government forces in 2017. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced each year in the wider Manila metropolitan area due to flooding. This project is exploring household sheltering pathways for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to unpack how informality shapes household decision-making in urban crises.   

Our expert: Dr Petr Matous

Overview: We’re gathering primary data from communities in remote rural communities in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines to study the impacts of mobile phone technology and new transportation infrastructure on people’s networks, access to information, environmental management, and poverty. We conduct network interventions in these communities to identify causal relationships between networks and beneficial outcomes of interest.