Canterbury students tackle Tongan water challenges

A remote village in Tonga needs clean drinking water but there is limited electricity to run a processing plant – can you design a solution?

That’s the real-life challenge facing a group of University of Canterbury (UC) final-year Chemical and Process Engineering (CAPE) students for their team design project.

The team of four needs to create an economically viable plan for a small-scale plant to desalinate and sterilise drinking water. It should be powered by renewable resources since the village – a real place called Felemea – only has electricity for two hours each day and diesel is expensive.

The idea for the project came from Siale Faitotonu, a geomechanics laboratory technician in the UC College of Engineering. He was a high school teacher in Tonga, and visited Felemea on a UC research trip at the start of this year.

Faitotonu has been providing first-hand knowledge of the village to the students and giving them advice on local contacts and traditions.

“This project is good for the students and for the community. Hopefully it will become a reality because that would be a blessing for Felemea,” he says.

“There are also other islands in Tonga having similar problems with water, who might be able to use the same kind of processing plant.”

While the exercise is being done on paper, the students have set themselves the goal of making their design as practical as possible in the hope that it will be built.

Team member Olivia Duplan says the task is rewarding because it has the potential to help people.

“This is a project that has a humanitarian aspect to it because everyone should have access to clean drinking water. I think the project is really important and it brings me joy to think that it could improve people’s lives.

“It would be amazing if our design could be implemented and we want to do everything possible to make that feasible, like utilising systems that are already in use on other Pacific islands.”

Duplan, who is studying towards a Diploma in Global Humanitarian Engineering, would love to be able to visit Felemea. “If Covid wasn’t happening, we would absolutely love to go over there to talk to the community about what they want and how they could be involved.”

The other team members are Craig Stocker, Jack Deeley and Matt Rennie.      

UC CAPE Associate Professor Matt Watson says the design scenario is a great opportunity for the students to apply their knowledge on a global scale and generate connections with a Pacific Island community.

 “There have been issues with the ground water supply in the village and some outbreaks of gastrointestinal-type diseases, so there is a need for a better system to serve the 200 people who live there.

“It’s a very remote place – if you’re travelling from the international airport in Tonga it’s a 90 minute flight and then another 90 minutes by boat.

“While this is a paper exercise for the students, it will be useful for the village and the government of Tonga because the team will do an economic analysis for their design.

“This challenge is quite unique and it was the most popular design choice for the students.”

The team is currently researching the pattern of water usage in the village and their plan, so far, is to use solar energy to power the plant.

They have had input from UC Pacific Academic Lead Ashalyna Noa, and their BECA Consulting supervisor, UC Engineering graduate Lisa Mace. They’re also contacting Tongan residents Sione Sunia (District Officer) and Latu Mo’ale Fusitu’a (Town Officer).

Noa says the project is an encouraging response to the UC Pasifika Strategy. “While this is of great benefit to Felemea, UC engineering students are learning about Tonga and growing their own cultural responsiveness.”

The completed project is due by late October and the top team project this year will be entered in the Australasian Institute of Chemical Engineers Design Competition.