Murdoch engineer delivers a lifetime of drinking water to thirsty children

Navy helicopter drops water treatment plant onto the island

Murdoch University graduate Tom Wheeler recently returned to Perth after installing a drinking water treatment plant for a school on Nusa Lembongan in Indonesia.

The school’s children had been suffering from lack of drinking water as their well turned brackish with saltwater intrusion after many years of tourist hotel developments taking groundwater from the island’s fragile shallow aquifer. 

The children, like so many people in similar climate and tourism impacted water supply situations on Indonesian small islands, had resorted to drinking water from plastic bottles. This resulted in a massive increase in plastic pollution, but also because of the high cost, children were simply not drinking enough water.

Tom came across the problem when visiting the island as a student on surf trips and beach clean-ups. 

As a participant in the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan trips to Indonesia, he was able to help other Murdoch students visiting the island learn about the gravity of these problems. 

He then began working with island residents to develop solutions.

Tom, who was also President of the Perth Surfrider Foundation at the time, formed a partnership with local environmental NGO Bottle for Botol. As well as continuing the beach clean-ups together they launched a campaign to fix the well water problem at the school.

Solar panels for water plantImage: Tom Wheeler and school students carry the solar PV array for installation with their drinking water treatment unit.

Associate Professor Martin Anda, Chair of Environmental Engineering at Murdoch University, led the students’ New Colombo Plan trips to Indonesia and brought Perth company Moerk Water Solutions with him. 

Moerk manufactures small solar-powered water desalination plants for drinking water in remote areas. 

Tom immediately saw the potential of this technology for the school and determined the size of system necessary to supply them with a steady stream of drinking water. 

He successfully applied to the Australian Government’s DFAT Friendship Grants for the necessary funding to deliver the Moerk technology to the school.

Moerk manufactured the solar powered water treatment unit for the Lembongan school, but then Covid hit.

The project was delayed for two years, but in that time a chance visit of the Admiral of the Australian Navy to the Moerk factory enabled Moerk manager Barbara Brezger to request a navy frigate drop the unit off at Lembongan next time they were going past.

The Admiral duly fulfilled the promise and dropped the unit off with the frigate’s helicopter next time they were passing.

Water plant install

Image: Tom Wheeler and the school staff assemble the unit (L). School teacher Mr Surya Utama Ode celebrates with the first drink of fresh clean water from the wellwater treatment plant. 

Tom undertook a dedicated surfing mission to the island in November 2022 and completed the installation at the school.

Now the next batch of Murdoch New Colombo Plan students are looking forward to visiting the school on with Dr Anda and Tom in December and the school is looking forward to demonstrating the success of their children’s new drinking water supply.

Solar photovoltaic power for drinking water treatment will be a major solution for the thousands of small villages across Indonesia’s archipelago of 15,000 islands. 

These wonderful solar power solutions will be highlighted at the World Renewable Energy Congress to be held at Murdoch University December 4-8. 

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Posted on:

27 Nov 2022

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