Heidi Michael

MIEAust CPEng EngExec NER

Head of Community Programs (Australia and International)

Engineers Without Borders

Heidi Michael has over 14 years’ experience in the sustainability, water and sanitation industries in a variety of contexts in Australia and Asia Pacific region, and is passionate about using participatory approaches to lead, manage and deliver quality, sustainable and appropriate solutions to communities.

She is an EngExec of the Institute of Engineers Australia, has a Bachelor of Engineering (Environment)(Hons) and an MSc in Water and Waste Engineering (WEDC), with research on accessible WASH facilities. Heidi currently is Head of Community Programs for Engineers Without Borders Australia.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I first joined as soon as I graduated in 2006, however my membership dropped off in 2009 when I moved overseas to work in international development, and I didn’t reconnect until 2018.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I studied environmental engineering as my undergraduate degree, and I was motivated by wanting to understand how the environmental processes and systems worked and how people interacted with the environment. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, this developed further into exploring how natural water resources could be tapped into and protected to provide safe drinking water for rural communities in countries like Timor-Leste.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
Society benefits from engineering solutions on a daily basis, however there are means to ensure these solutions are appropriate for everyone, not just a select few, and are considerate of environmental sustainability. What I think is exciting, and particularly about the work of EWB Australia, is that we look at how engineering can be applied in a way that is people-centred and considers environmental implications, acknowledging that communities and people rely on the health of the environment around us to sustain our own health.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
One particularly interesting project is the EWB Sanitation in Challenging Environments project in Cambodia. We work across the sector with communities and grass roots organisations to trial sanitation technical solutions, and work with Cambodian government and sector agencies to improve technical standards and influence policy change. Many communities are living in environments where a typical pit latrine will not be appropriate, such as on the Tonle Sap floating villages, areas that are prone to flooding, and/or areas that are prone to drought.

We work on different sanitation technologies with various partner organisations in different geographies, developing and testing solutions that function within those environments and provide safe sanitation. For example, the Sato pan is

trialed with various partners in water-scarce environments; the biodigester is trialed to be a zero-waste solution for communities prone to flooding; the 3 chamber pit latrine is trialed to reduce contamination to the surrounding groundwaters. The project is interesting and challenging because it is working toward having impact through partnerships with multiple stakeholders, engaging closely and designing with community, and scaling up through sector-wide engagement.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
A big issue is the climate challenge. It’s impacting many areas of society where engineering can be part of the solution but not a stand-alone solution – and requires consideration and engagement with the broader ecosystem to ensure sustainable outcomes. What may seem relatively straightforward community challenges are likely marred by political or social constraints, market access, and environmental impacts. To address the broader ecosystem constraints, cross-sectoral partnerships are key. Seeking collaborators and partners is also critical for sustainable outcomes.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
It’s exciting how rapidly technology is changing and being developed, but I think parallel to that is the growing focus on the people at the centre of the technology and engineering processes. For engineering to achieve sustainable results, engineers need to not only be able to listen and understand the community or end-users they are designing with, but they also need to have a deep understanding of themselves. Self-awareness, self-insight, humility and ability to adapt, are some critical skills that I believe engineers need to adopt when working with communities and developing technologies that are appropriate.

Who is your engineering hero?
I have many engineering heroes – some of whom are Timorese female engineers and members of the Women in Engineering (Feto Enginerha) group in Timor-Leste. They are continuously pushing against societal boundaries and socio-economic constraints to seek out engineering, a non-traditional career pathway for women, to make the most of every opportunity that they can, and whilst doing that giving a hand up to their peers and sisters. They are quite inspiring!

Image: courtesy of Heidi Michael