International MDIA2003_19 MDIA2003_19_P1

International students help prevent Chronic Kidney Disease in Sri Lankan village  

Written by Violetta Katsaris and Sasika Jayasuriya 

After decades of suffering from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDU) in Galwaduwagama, Sri Lanka, a Reverse Osmosis (R.O) plant has been implemented by Impact Engineers to help provide clean water.  

“This project is not something that will greatly benefit us [the adults as opposed to the children]. We have already been drinking this water for almost three decades. This is a project to safeguard and prevent our kids from going through the same problem in the future,” a village leader from Galwaduwagama said.  

The rural village of Galwaduwagama, in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, plagued by CKDU because of poor water quality, has a more promising future due to the actions of the student project, Impact Engineers.   

Within Sri Lankan, 74% of those who suffer from CKDU come from the North Central province, but with the implementation of a R.O plant by Impact Engineers, clean water has become more accessible to the people of Galwaduwagama.  

Before the R.O was implemented, a communal tank with no filtration was used to collect water, resulting in many villagers being affected by CKDU, with as many as 20 families in the village suffering from the disease and deaths.  

Impact Engineers identified the village of Galwaduwagama as a potential area that could benefit from a R.O system due to the high prevalence of CKDU, and because they were willing to work with a Sri-Lankan led student project.   

Impact Engineers is made up entirely of Sri Lankan international students, who using the funding and skills gained through studying in UNSW, helped develop a rural area in their home country.   

“Going back to Sri Lanka and being able to give back to the community there, and seeing how grateful they were to us, and seeing these elders, these adults so wise, and knowledgeable, and who have seen a lot more than we have, are so grateful that they’re almost bowing down and we’re like we don’t deserve this, that’s not right,” Naduni Obadage, a founding member of Impact Engineers, said.   

The R.O was implemented in March 2018, began producing water in May 2018 and was officially opened in July 2018, after just only 18 months, largely owing to the team members of Impact Engineers being Sri Lankan. 

“Finding out the right network, the right connections and linking up with the right people and building trust with a community takes a long period of time and often occurs in different language. But for us, because were able to speak Sinhalese and we were fluent in it… they understand we know their customs, their traditions…I would say, yes, one of the biggest advantages as a team was our network, our connections and our background that helped us things done in such a short period of time,” Naduni explained.   

Whilst government organisations often focus on short-term impacts, mostly on delivering aid for disaster management, student-led projects such as Impact Engineers can help develop long-term sustainable solutions for long-lasting issues such as CKDU.  

“As a student-led team we were about to partner up with industry, other non-for-profit organisations, other volunteers, other universities and get a broad range of help and advice… But at the same time, we could also bypass a lot of bureaucracy, and deliver our project that we promised in 18 months,” Naduni explained. 

Initially, the members of Impact Engineers were involved in student outreach programs in Sri Lankan high schools, like the ones Engineers Without Borders provides here in Australia.  

The aim was to foster the new generation of engineers and entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka, and according to Naduni, the overwhelming positive feedback inspired them to continue their work in their home country.  

“It was such a good feeling, especially because we were doing it back in Sri Lanka. Because it’s where we grew up, we could give back to that community. It made us feel really good about it,” Naduni described her experience of aiding in the development of her home country.    

“Impact Engineers had a connection to the country and the project that they wanted to conduct, which gave them a distinct advantage in going forward with the project,” Stephanie Bagnell, Student Projects Officer in the Faculty of Engineering at UNSW, said.  

Stephanie went on to say that for projects such as the implementation of a R.O Plant in Sri Lanka require academic support and funding from the Faculty of Engineering, without which such a project would be impossible.  

Providing a pitch that would be approved by the Faculty of Engineering at the start for Impact Engineers was a major obstacle that they had to overcome, said Ramal Ratnayake, the lead app developer.   

“However, because of our prior experience doing small scale projects previously and our intimate understanding of the locale and problem we were able to move past the obstacle with hard work,” Ramal explained.    

According to Ramal, another obstacle was working around differing specialisations and schedules when planning the project, especially given the restrictive time frame. 

“This obstacle was overcome by the fact that the group contained individuals with a drive to help the rural community and aided by the fact that the idea came from a group of friends who were willing to make the necessary sacrifices to complete the project,” Ramal said.   

The app developed by a team within Impact Engineers is used to gain information from the R.O Plant installed in Galwaduwagama, and maintain contact.  

Ramal said that without it, issues regarding the functionality of the R.O Plant would not be communicated, “For example, we noticed that the usage rate of the R.O Plant was low one week and we asked why that was, the villagers said that there was a maintenance issue that resulted in lower numbers.”  

Impact Engineers is also seeking to expand their project outside Sri Lankan, looking now at vulnerable areas in rural Australia, particularly Indigenous communities such as Walgett, NSW.   

Impact Engineers hopes to expand their organisation, and continue work on long-term development in rural areas, understanding the need for people from similar ethnic backgrounds to the communities due to their knowledge of customs, beliefs and the language.   

“Impact Engineers is a sustainable student project due to active recruitment that can take place and because it is always possible for current members to work with the organisation as alumni,” Stephanie said on how Impact Engineers can move forward into the future as a student project.  

 As student projects such as Impact Engineers, often led by international students, continue to expand and propose new projects, rural developing areas such as Galwaduwagama have better prospects with the knowledge that higher education in other countries provide meaningful opportunities for international students to provide sustainable development and solutions to existing problems.