A week on Mer Island - deepening the dialogue about sustainable infrastructure


Over two and a half thousand kilometres away to the north of Sydney is a tiny island in the outermost reaches of the Torres Strait called Murray (Mer) Island. On the island live a community of 400 people who rely on diesel for electricity, desalination for water and import their food by barge from Cairns, eight hundred kilometres away. The water supply is intermittent, fresh food is prohibitively expensive and the only waste disposal method currently is burning off in the small open landfill, plastics and all. If you were an engineer, what would you do to try and improve the quality of life of the community and the impacts on the environment of this infrastructure? Where would you start?

This very question formed the core of the fourth year environmental engineering course, Planning Sustainable Infrastructure. For all of semester 1, 2015, we looked at infrastructure improvements and demand minimisation strategies across water, waste, energy and transport. We researched, we talked to the mayor, we analysed data, and learnt to make assumptions where information was thin. We wrote reports, compiled suggestions and presented to the public at the showcase.

For four incredibly lucky students though, this was only the beginning. Sarah Hayes, Felipe Lebensold, Amarin Siri and Danielle Tuazon were given the opportunity by the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering to visit the island during the mid-year break and talk to the community about what we had found. This trip marks the start of a relationship between UNSW and Mer Island, whereby students each year will visit Mer to deepen the dialogue about moving towards sustainable infrastructure.

And so it was that the four of us, along with lecturers Prof. Martin Nakata (Nura Gili), Stephen Moore, Prof. Richard Stuetz, came to spend a week in the most remote and beautiful place we had ever seen. It was only as we made our way from Sydney to Cairns, Cairns to Thursday Island, Thursday Island to Mer and as the planes became smaller and smaller that we realised just how far away it was. Geographic isolation poses many challenges and it was on that trip that we realised the imperative of self-sufficiency in such a location. Sustainable infrastructure on Mer isn’t just about reducing carbon emissions, it is a question of independence and standard of living. This is a lesson that Eddie Mabo, whose grave we were privileged to visit, knew deeply and passed on to his community. We have to find solutions that marry the two approaches: rain-water tanks may reduce the load on the desalination plant but the community is infinitely more interested in the fact that it would mean 24 hour supply. A community garden would reduce the need for freighted food and hence transportation emissions, but it needs to be framed in terms of improving food availability.

The week flew by, a strange balance of frenetic activity and blissful calm. We ran workshops at the school; we slept in the afternoon. We gave presentations to community groups and interviewed elders; we wandered through endless greenery and paddled in the bright blue ocean (large, close and abundant sharks meant swimming was out of the question). We looked at pumps and wiring and inverters, we learnt to fish and climb coconut trees, we skimmed pebbles and collected shells. We made friends with families, and watched the State of Origin together. We discovered that the colourful houses we’d seen all over the island in fact denoted the owner’s NRL loyalties – lime green and purple houses everywhere indicated the Raiders and the Storm were popular choices.

The trip was the most unbelievable experience. What we learnt, above all else, is that engineering does not exist in a vacuum, it is and has to be a reaction to the social and cultural environment it is serving. We all knew this on an academic level, but to see and live and breathe the island for a week was to know it on a deeper, more fundamental level. Walking around, we saw that our lofty ideas dreamed up in a city classroom were too formal, too rigid. The trip gave us a better understanding of the intricacies and sensitivity that being an engineer involves which will be valuable to us for the rest of our lives. Also, we hope that in some small way we have helped to begin a fruitful relationship with the small island community we all fell in love with.

Written by Sarah Hayes - Environmental Engineering / Commerce student, UNSW

Since the expedition to Mer Island this course and its dedicated teaching staff have won two major teaching excellence and engineering education awards.