The trouble-shooter

Civil engineer Robert Hodgson, who heads the RedR relief charity, describes the challenges and achievements of working in disaster zones

We have all been moved by the desperate plight of people in Burma and China after the recent cyclone and earthquake. Many of us will have been sufficiently disturbed by reports and TV pictures to pick up the phone and do our bit with a small donation.

But how many of us can honestly say we wish we were there in the heart of the catastrophe, picking through the debris, risking our personal safety, and helping people rebuild their shattered lives?

For the engineers who form almost a third of any major relief effort, there is no doubt this is where they want to be, doing what engineers do best: bringing their skills to bear on fundamental issues of human survival.

One such person is civil engineer Dr Robert Hodgson who, as well as working as a consultant for Black & Veatch, is the chair of international disaster relief charity RedR, which recruits and trains engineers and other aid workers to respond to disasters worldwide.

A veteran of relief operations in Uganda, Liberia, Albania, Bangladesh, and most recently, Sri Lanka, Hodgson’s present responsibilities mean he is unlikely to travel to the current crisis spots. But his tales from war-torn Liberia, cyclone-struck Bangladesh, and post-tsunami Sri Lanka paint a compelling picture of the challenges faced by engineers involved in relief work.

From providing sanitation and shelter, to restoring crippled transport and communications links, engineers arriving in a disaster zone are presented with a bewildering and potentially overwhelming set of problems.

The first priority, said Hodgson, is to impose some order on a situation that often involves hundreds of organisations from around the world. ‘You have to co-ordinate with the other aid agencies so that the most appropriate resources are put to the best possible use.’

Although the UN is trying to do this with an initiative whereby the different disciplines involved in disaster relief are clustered together beneath lead agencies, the inevitable chaos means an engineer’s skills are often used in unexpected ways.

‘You get sent for one purpose and wind up having to do something else,’ said Hodgson. ‘For instance, in 1982 I was sent to Uganda to drill water wells and ended up building roads. You also get all sorts of other things thrown at you because you’re the engineer — like fixing cars.’

Similarly, after the tsunami, Hodgson was placed with UK medical relief charity Merlin to help restore the local water supplies in Sri Lanka, but immediately found his skills were put to better use elsewhere. ‘At the time I was sent, the tsunami had just happened and no-one had any idea that there was going to be the most enormous response anyone could remember. By the time I arrived we found that all the traditional water supply and support agencies were there and there was no really no need for me to worry about water issues, so I reverted to what Merlin does best, which is supporting local medical authorities.

‘In Sri Lanka they lost a fair number of hospital buildings and medical infrastructure, so my first job was to have a look at all these structures and put together proposals for replacing and repairing them.’

As well as helping with the immediate aftermath, engineers also play a vital role in helping communities prepare for future disasters.

After the devastating Bangladesh cyclone in 1991, tens of millions of Bangladeshis were left homeless as their mud huts were demolished by the 6m-high storm surge that swept inland. But Hodgson believes a few simple changes to the way the huts are constructed could save homes from the ravages of future floods.

Through his housing and hazards group at Exeter university, Hodgson has been working alongside academics in Bangladesh developing new approaches to mud-hut construction. ‘We’ve been looking at joint stabilisation methods and simple treatments for bamboo so it doesn’t rot so quickly,’ he said. ‘We’ve also been investigating processes by which people can rebuild their own houses but in a way that will make them secure against flood. If you can mix the right amount of cement with the right type of mud you can make them virtually flood-proof.’

Through a series of wind-tunnel tests at Exeter and field tests at Dacca university, Hodgson’s group has demonstrated that the technology works. The big challenge now is to promote their findings. ‘A cement stabilised mud house doesn’t look any different to a non-cement stabilised one so it’s difficult for people to see the benefits. Also, most people who live in rural Bangladesh are no different to you and me — they would like something new and shiny. The idea of someone telling them how to make a better mud house doesn’t really appeal.’

Nevertheless, Hodgson claimed that as a direct result of his work in this field, Bangladeshi architectural students are being taught, for the first time, about rural architecture, and a pool of local knowledge is beginning to emerge.

Relating his experiences to the current catastrophes, Hodgson believes the challenges for the few relief workers who have been allowed to help in Burma are similar to those he encountered in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where low-lying land and a high water table made sanitation exceptionally difficult.

‘This is the big problem in low-lying delta areas, where shallow ground water leads to a strong risk of contamination, and creates big problems in terms of waste disposal. In the tsunami they developed raised latrines, but also the affected areas were localised about half a kilometre along the coast — inland you were away from the problem and a lot of people could move.’

He said with such a huge area affected, and a severely restricted relief effort, the picture in Burma looks bleak. ‘They’ve got to separate water supply and waste disposal as much as possible, but how they’re going to do that I don’t know.’

Hodgson’s experiences from post- cyclone Bangladesh also illustrate some of the unexpected problems the Burmese relief effort faces. ‘A cyclone can do a lot of damage to the airlift capacity. The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh not only flattened 10 million homes but also wiped out the eight army helicopters that were based in the area. The other thing that goes down in high wind is radio antennas.’

Hodgson reflects on a chilling truism of the aid industry, and some troubling news from Africa. ‘The scale of response is driven by publicity, and sharp shocks like tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes tend to hit the headlines quickly. The kind of disasters that don’t attract so much publicity are the droughts and famines and at the moment there’s a food shortage in the Horn of Africa. I haven’t seen it in any headlines. The crops have failed in southern Ethiopia for the last two seasons and at some point we’ll hear about it.’