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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Formalising Sustainable Practice: Increasing the scale of a rainwater harvesting project in Mexico City

Ralph Thompson

Formalising Sustainable Practice: Increasing the scale of a rainwater harvesting project in Mexico City

This dissertation examines how a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in Mexico City may increase the scale of one of its projects, without losing the sustainable aspects of its operations that have allowed it to succeed thus far. The NGO in question is the International Institute for Renewable Resources (IRRI). This thesis is focused on a specific project of theirs called Isla Urbana, which works to install rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems at a household level in a peri-urban area on the southern outskirts of Mexico City. The motivation for this research was to provide academic support to IRRI, to help them consolidate the practices that have allowed them to succeed so far, increase the scale of the project, and increase the impact of a solution that has the potential to significantly benefit a marginalised section of society. It is also hoped that the lessons drawn from this study will be applicable to other NGOs in a similar position. Following the introduction and contextual background chapters, the thesis has two key parts, each focused on one of the three research questions. The first question is, 'How sustainable is the Isla Urbana project?'. This part of the dissertation will examine the NGOs implementation method, and assess its sustainability and suitability for larger scales. Secondly, 'How can Isla Urbana sustainably increase the scale of its operations?'. The focus of the next part is how the project may increase its breadth of impact, while maintaining or improving on the sustainable practices identified in the first section. It will examine what barriers to acceptance of the solution the NGO may encounter, and how these may be overcome. Based on this analysis, a series of recommendations for the future will be drawn. The primary target audience for this thesis is the NGO IRRI, specifically the operations surrounding the Isla Urbana project. The outcome of this work for IRRI is a set of recommendations, which aim to provide a summarised yet comprehensive coverage of the issues identified, and ways in which they can be overcome. The secondary audience for the project is a wider group encompassing small to medium NGOs in Mexico in a more general sense. For this group, the project seeks to present what the barriers are to NGOs scaling up their operations in the Mexican context. The tertiary audience for this work is the markers at the Centre for Sustainable Development and the Board of Graduate Studies at Cambridge University. For them, this work is intended to demonstrate that the author has achieved a proficient understanding of Engineering for Sustainable Development.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.