A unique water treatment system, spearheaded by a team of Singaporean engineers, is helping to bring clean water to more than 1,500 residents of a township in Yangon, Myanmar.
That same project has now helped the project lead, Dr Victor Sim, 35, win the inaugural Young Engineers Competition, organised by the World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO).
The competition - held in conjunction with the WFEO's 50th anniversary - aimed to recognise the work of engineers below the age of 35 in advancing sustainable development goals of the United Nations.
Dr Sim, who is a council member of the Institution of Engineers, Singapore, beat 140 others from around the world to clinch the victory. He will get to present the project at the Global Engineering Congress in London in October.
He led a team of five from the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (Newri) to design an innovative reverse osmosis water treatment system for the Don Bosco School in the Hlaing Thar Yar township of Yangon.
The project was conducted through the Lien Environmental Fellowship, a programme funded by the Lien Foundation and administered by Newri.
"Water is always an issue in many areas," said Dr Sim, who was previously the deputy director of NewriComm, the research institute's community development arm.
The water in the Hlaing Thar Yar area had high levels of metals and saline, he said, adding that proper waste management and water treatment were not available.
"Because it's an industrial area, the water is always (discoloured)," he told The Straits Times. "Even if it's not, the water might not be safe to drink because of chemicals."
While reverse osmosis - a process where water is pushed through membranes to filter out dissolved salts and minerals - was deemed the most suitable method, it was not sufficient, he said. The hardness of the water, as well as its high metal content, meant dense membranes and high pressure were needed.
"This is energy intensive and can be quite costly," he said, adding that the membranes would not last long.
Extensive pre-treatment of the water is also necessary, said Dr Sim, who is the principal engineer for sustainable urban solutions for consultancy firm Surbana Jurong.
"Newri handles the capital costs, but we don't believe in handling the operating costs. We can give the first push but later on the community has to take charge," he said.
To keep the cost of the project affordable and ensure its sustainability in the long term, local contractors and engineers are employed to handle the construction and maintenance works.
Under an agreement with the village head, the treated water will be sold at a subsidised rate to the community for revenue to ensure the ongoing viability of the water treatment system.
A solar-powered Internet of Things system allows the system to be monitored remotely, without relying on an unstable electrical grid or a full-time onsite operator.
Preliminary studies for the project were conducted in December last year, with the design of the reverse osmosis system completed in March.
Although such projects usually cost more than $150,000, this one costs less than $100,000, said Dr Sim, who is married with two children.
The system is now being tested, and may be extended to other townships in the future.
WFEO president Marlene Kanga said the project embodies "the values of engineering to improve the lives of people everywhere for a better sustainable world".
Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah said Dr Sim's win showed engineers can be "powerful agents of social change" by using their skills and multi-disciplinary knowledge to serve the best interests of the community.