On 10 March, for the fourth year running, 20 Civil Engineering students along with two staff, embarked on a journey to two remote communities in a poverty stricken area of Borneo to construct vital gravity-fed water systems.
The trip formed a share of a fourth year module, with Newcastle University teaming up with Raleigh International to tackle the ambitions set-out in the newly formed Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).
The previous six months of research, report writing, basic training and extensive fund-raising, to some extent prepared us for an intense three-weeks living and working in the incredibly hot, dense and formidable jungle.
Upon arrival in Borneo, we split into two teams. I was a part of ‘Charlie 2’, a team comprising of 10 students, a member of staff, two Raleigh PM’s and a translator. We were then tasked with travelling to the 150 strong community of Mankabusu.
On the first day we were dutifully greeted with a wide fast-flowing river, with the community and our ‘shack’ located endearingly on the other side. Luckily, the community had brought their helpful, if somewhat questionable, canoes, rife with holes, to transport ourselves and our equipment to the other side. A steep 50 metre climb awaited us and following multiple trips to carry our equipment and food, we may have been right to question what we had got ourselves into.
“Intense three-weeks living and working in the incredibly hot, dense and formidable jungle”
We arrived to our new home and began making the preparations to camp, including the dreaded ‘long-drop’, or ‘hole in the ground’. After resisting all urges for several days to avoid the inevitable, the first time you use it really is an experience. Some found it quite enlightening in a different way with one student being quoted as saying, ‘it’s actually quite nice, squatting there and being able to look at the stars’. Each to their own.
The next few days gave us the glimpse of the challenge ahead and of course, there were plenty of complimentary coconuts from the community leader to sweeten the deal.
The gravity-fed water system relies on a water source with an adequate height difference so that gravity can be utilised to obtain a suitable pressure throughout the system. It just so happened, that our source was a mere three and half kilometres of challenging terrain and a an hour and a half walk away. The trek however, was made substantially easier through the astonishing views and opportunities to see the wildlife. A sentiment on nature which was not always shared by the community.
An earlier gravity-fed water system had previously been put in place by the Malaysian government, but due to a poor choice of source and engineering, it stopped working soon after. Piling on the pressure to make sure we got it right this time.
With help from the community, we went about day-to-day redirecting a river and constructing a dam, laying roughly five and a half kilometres of pipe and constructing tank sites for storage. Not to mention, the always enjoyable task of collecting and carrying aggregate. More than 80 bags, if you must.
The Kampong had an adept ability to forge anything with their trusty Parang (Machete), even if it was slightly intimidating. In contrast, a fellow student proceeded to pull out their penknife, only to see the leader slowly pull out his Parang with a growing smirk on his face.
“There were plenty of complimentary coconuts from the community leader”
The days were long and the physical work grudging in the 35 degree heat. This, coupled with the basic living conditions created a testing environment. 14 of us were squeezed into our shack, close enough that you would find yourself inches away from your neighbours face in the morning, quite heart-warming, but not quite as comforting as you’d think after using only a shower bucket for two-weeks. The sleep talking did keep things interesting though, in particular the time a student cried out ‘Come on guys, we need to get this projet finished’, followed by a dejected ‘sorry’, to everyone else’s confusion at 2am.
All this was made significantly easier with the chance to swim in the river each night and relax. Even the repetitive routine of eating porridge, crackers and noodles became somewhat of a blessing each day.
However, nothing will top the astonishment and jubilation that hit the camp when the news hit that there was water flowing from the taps.
The difficulties faced just made the end result that much sweeter and satisfying. Not to mention the sincere gratitude from the community. Finally, a chance to relax and celebrate with the community, being introduced some of the local games.
Unanimously the group felt that the project was a beneficial experience for all, and well worth the painstaking task of raising the required £2300. If the communication and leadership skills weren’t enough, we can walk away knowing we are slightly better at chopping coconuts, squatting and taking picturesque photos.
With the project being a success, water has been provided for 19 houses and roughly 150 people; adding the success of the other Newcastle group, ‘Charlie 1’. We can now look back on the project fondly and make sure we bring up the subject as much as possible around our housemates, because that’s what they really want, even if they don’t admit it.