Quenching The Thirst Of Rural Communities – In Conversation With Sachini De Silva

The 2022 floods in our eastern states have shown us the destructive and deadly power of water in the early years of the climate crisis, but what about the other side of the coin? Water scarcity is just as concerning a problem for the nation, and we need innovative solutions to quench the thirst of our rural communities. I spoke with engineer Sachini De Silva about her new project, working in the environment sector and her South Asian roots.

Source: Stock by Jennifer Watson 

What do you consider essential for living creatures?

If you thought of air or water, you’re in the same boat as most people.

Water is critical to every single process in living creatures. From supporting metabolism inside our bodies at the cellular scale, through to shaping our coastlines and connecting continents, water is a life force which we often take for granted.

Unfortunately, it’s not always available. On Wilyakali land (far Western NSW), water scarcity is a threat for our food bowl and a source of severe stress for our farmers. In rural areas, lack of clean drinking water leads to an increased consumption of cordial and sugary drinks, leading to epidemic levels of diabetes and renal disease for First Nations communities.

It is an atrocity that plentiful clean water access is not guaranteed for every person who lives in so-called Australia, and it is particularly abhorrent that First Nations communities with critical knowledge about water and country are subject to a lack of basic necessities.

The combination of the sheer size of this continent, our focus on urban development, poor water management policies and an over exploitation of existing resources has led to this issue for our communities. Transporting potable water via tankers for hundreds of kilometres has been the primary solution for our rural communities, but it is unsustainable and expensive.

I have previously written about the terrifying predictions of our drinking water running out, and the need for collaboration and innovation to solve this wicked problem. Today, I write about an engineer who’s working on the solutions for the rural communities who need it most.

Sachini De Silva is a brilliant Sri Lankan Australian, living on Dharawal Country and working at Aurecon as a process engineer. She has recently been making the headlines as part of the team behind Project Gilghi (gil-ghai), a sustainable off-grid water treatment container system.

Source: Project Gilghi, Aurecon

Project Gilghi uses bores, streams, brackish saltwater and filters, and treats this into clean drinking water. The unit itself is flexible, scalable, and most importantly, relies on nothing but energy from the sun. It is able to be assembled off-site and easily transported for an affordable, independent solution.

The first unit, installed in Gillen Bore in the Northern Territory, has been producing clean water for 3 years.

‘With the remote water supply in regional locations, we found that it had been an issue that was difficult to address previously for a number of reasons,’ Sachini explains, ‘not having access to the power grid made water treatment solutions very expensive in regional areas. The distance also meant that monitoring was difficult and there was a lack of ownership for the community over their water supply. So with these kinds of barriers in mind, we wanted to design a solution that was catered to the community's needs.’

And cater it does. The project, developed for the Arrernte people as the custodians of the land and Alkupitja Land Trust, has been a huge hit in the local community. By engaging  Ingkerreke Outstations Resource Services, community members have been trained, employed, and empowered to operate the system themselves. It is as much a story of innovation as it is about stewardship.

‘They are really excited to have access to clean drinking water now. It’s very special to see it in action!’

From how brightly Sachini smiles during our conversation, I can see that this is not just a community win, but a personal one for her.

Source: Project Gilghi, Aurecon

I ask about why she chose to be involved in the water, engineering and sustainability space.

‘From an early age, I had an interest in working and pursuing a career in something that would have a positive impact on the community. I've always had the opportunity to go back and forth travelling to see family there and as well as grow up here […] being very much a part of the two cultures has allowed me to see the privileges that we have here and also be able to give back to the communities that we're in. Learning that through my upbringing is what inspired me to give back. I feel very grateful to have had both the Sri Lankan and Western upbringing’.

Her appreciation of culture, community, and giving back is demonstrated through her journey to date. From participating in engineering programs in high school to Engineers Without Borders during her undergraduate degree at UNSW, she has been making an impact in the community.

‘One of the first Engineers without Borders projects I worked on was with a community in Cambodia. For a village that only had access to contaminated water from their local lake, we developed a ceramic filter so that water was safe to use at a household level. That opportunity to design local solutions for global impact was very eye-opening and sparked my interest in the water space’.

After graduating, she joined Aurecon as a graduate and has been a part of the water team since. As a STEM graduate myself, I was curious to know what the magic formula was for Sachini’s success at such a young age.

‘Embrace and celebrate the differences in everyone! I get to experience that at work every day […] the diversity of thought and perspective is what brings the magic in the solutions that we're delivering.’

Her advice for other South Asians looking to work in sustainability?

‘Be open to the opportunities that come your way. You never know what you might get out of them, whether it's a new skill or you might expand your network. Have a chat, learn from others, and be open minded’.

I wholeheartedly agree with Sachini’s advice. Her philosophies of open mindedness both towards people and opportunities are part of the mindset that makes her a creative and dynamic problem solver. Seeing the success of Project Gilghi, I wanted to know more about what lies ahead.

‘We are really hopeful that the [Project Gilghi] approach could be deployed in other regional communities around the world. We want it to cater to the community’s needs and address any pain points they have, and we want to be mindful of connection to country. We have inquiries that we are looking into, so hopefully it’s just the beginning!’

I look forward to seeing how the project, and Sachini’s future work, makes a difference in the sustainability space. When I ask her one last question on her philosophy on water security and sustainability – she reflects on the nature of the small things making a big difference.

‘Water is a precious resource, as we know, and I think something that most of us do tend to take for granted. Understanding and having an appreciation for the value of water is a role for everyone and is key in ensuring water security and long-term accessibility. It can start from the little things, like being more water conservative at a household level, and move to the big. Having everyone on this same page is underrated yet powerful.’

Tanaya Joshi is a science and culture writer at SAARI. She is the Impact and Communications Officer at Earthwatch Institute, a sustainability not-for-profit. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.