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Humanitarian and development work is a job for engineers Richard Lebon

Engineers play a vital role in providing both short and long-term relief after natural disasters. Working alongside international disaster relief charities, such as RedR, gives them the opportunity to offer valuable skills to the humanitarian sector.

In the immediate aftermath of a flood, affected communities need rudimentary roads, drainage and water supply. Engineers have the essential skills to respond to such an emergency.

Engineers are essential in crisis zones

In 2010, floods covered swathes of the Indus Delta in Sindh province, Pakistan. An estimated 20% of the country’s land area flooded, with 12 million homes damaged or destroyed. The disaster left a population greater than that of London in need of access to food and shelter, not to mention healthcare, education and a wide range of other basic services. The Indus flood waters contaminated hand pumps, destroyed some of the world’s oldest irrigation channels and eroded away mud houses.

During the post-emergency recovery phases, vast teams of local engineers, many of whom required training to adapt their skills to new disciplines and contexts, were employed to design and pilot housing and water supply installations and supervise construction in the field.

In the longer term, close work with the Pakistani government will continue to prevent such a disaster re-occurring. This includes planning for disaster risk reduction and engineering projects on a larger scale to control the changing behaviours of the Indus floodwaters, such as Mott MacDonald’s Sindh Water Sector Improvement Project.

Finally, there must be a crossover with longer term development projects. Two such Mott MacDonald projects include the Sindh Water Sector Improvement Project, a World Bank funded project to restore irrigation for farmers in the flooded province, and the Nairobi Urban Mobility project, for which we are assessing public transport options to resolve the congestion that is constraining Nairobi’s economic and social development.

Unique challenges and opportunities to learn

Engineering projects during and after emergencies present unique challenges. Although the technical design of a house, health centre or road may be relatively straightforward, the circumstances following a crisis throw up other challenges. For example, if local people are not consulted over the design, they may be unwilling to provide instrumental cooperation in providing local materials and construction labour, or to use the final building at all. There may be considerable challenges involving the supply chain and the transport of materials in remote environments. Operations in the field are often on such a large scale that the engineers will also need to train and manage a local team, from whom they will invariably learn a lot in return.

Of course, engineering in the developing world is not confined to emergency and disaster and should include meaningful long-term solutions for transport, waste management and water and power supply, particularly in the urban environments of Asia and Africa where, according to the United Nations, over 90% of the world’s projected urban population growth is concentrated. Our industry has a responsibility to create and implement the right projects in the developing world, and to establish an environment where common project challenges are familiar to us and we are capable of dealing with them.

Getting into the relief and development field

Working in the humanitarian sector throws engineers in at the deep end. It challenges and assaults them. But engineers are good at learning and problem-solving. Usually, in the field they discover abilities they didn’t think they had and learn how to apply their skills and training across a much wider range of scenarios.

Thanks to RedR, a charity which trains aid workers and provides skilled professionals to humanitarian programmes worldwide, engineers don’t need to be sent into the field blind. Since the 1980s, RedR has written books and offered guidance and training for engineers in the humanitarian sector, and continues to offer some fantastic introductory and technical courses.

RedR works in more than 80 countries each year on a range of humanitarian programmes, responding to crises including Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Mott MacDonald is a founding patron of RedR and has been committed to the charity for more than 20 years, providing financial support and enabling staff to train and volunteer in crisis zones.

There is great necessity and opportunity for engineering in relief and development. It is a field of work that is not only technically, financially and politically challenging but also creative – and which can’t be done from the comfort of your desk. To apply your expertise to fulfilling and valuable work, search for opportunities at RedR.

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