Predictably unpredictable

Guest blogger
Humanitarian engineering

Cheryl is a public health engineer and water, sanitation and hygiene technical advisor for disaster relief charity RedR UK. She has a broad background in international development and project management, and has worked for extended periods in Indonesia, DR Congo, Niger, Burkina Faso and Madagascar.

The ongoing crisis in Libya has thrown up all sorts of challenges for those attempting to flee one of the biggest political upheavals in the country’s recent history. In the past month, more than 400,000 people have crossed Libya’s borders for the relative safety of neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. Many thousands more – the majority of them migrant workers – remain in border camps, awaiting air transfers home.

Any significant movement of people in a short space of time can trigger a potential humanitarian crisis, particularly when it occurs in an isolated region with limited resources. A recent email from a colleague working on the ground in Libya reminded me of some of the challenges faced by relief workers tackling water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) issues during this type of crisis. Not only do you need to provide water for everyone to drink – which can be difficult in the middle of a desert – you also need to think about things like safe disposal of excreta and limiting health risks in crowded camps.

As an engineer working in the humanitarian sector, these are the kinds of issues that I have had to deal with during the course of my career. Though I haven’t been part of the relief effort in Libya, I have worked in similar situations around the world.

Despite the impressive experience and technical expertise of today’s aid workers, there are always things that you have never encountered – and often they need their own particular solution. Libya is a case in point. Reading through official updates from the region, produced by aid agencies working on the ground, I was struck by one unusual hurdle which camp managers are facing: the fact that the latrines are filling up just as quickly as aid workers can dig them. So, although the majority of people in Shousha camp, a large refugee camp on the Libyan-Tunisian border, have access to toilets, many of them are no longer usable. Why? Because people are using bottled water to clean themselves after going to the toilet and so the latrines are full of plastic.

The fact is, you might be able to plan the engineering side of a humanitarian solution but the human factor is something you cannot predict from one culture to another. Sourcing materials for and building 500 toilets in a camp of 17,000 takes days of coordination and planning, but maintaining them, getting people to use them correctly and encouraging hand-washing is a much longer project.

Now, instead of using purpose built facilities clogged with bottles, the people of Shousha (the very same camp that Angelina Jolie visited last month) are likely to be opting for the simpler and easier solution of going to the toilet outdoors. With that comes security and protection issues, particularly for women and girls, not to mention hygiene problems and ultimately, increased risk of disease.

Every humanitarian crisis brings with it issues of this kind. Take the project I worked on in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Again it was toilets! We built household bathrooms which had a septic tank, grey water tank and treatment garden to purify the wastewater. After the bathrooms had been built, some households decided to customise the pipe connections which meant that the system no longer functioned properly. In this case, the problem was essentially new technology that was introduced too quickly with limited training on how it worked. The engineering design looked good on paper: it was the human factor that we couldn’t predict.

The fact remains that, despite the odd hiccup and occasional challenge we cannot foresee, engineers are still some of the best trained people to solve problems such as these. We’re practical. We’re logical. For the most part, we’re solution-focussed and we get the job done. When people’s lives are hanging in the balance, humanitarian engineers – and the skills they bring to the table – really matter.

To find out more about RedR’s work, how to donate or get involved, please visit the website,