Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

On the water front

Working lives - Jo Parker

Summing up Jo Parker's 29 year career and achievements in water engineering is a tall order. It is a story of big ideas and making a difference - in the UK and abroad - that earned her an MBE in 1996 and a nomination for the newly created First Women Awards, to be announced next Wednesday.

Parker is currently working with UK Water Industry Research, the sector's R&D body, on a major IT initiative (see feature, p29). It involves logging all the UK's buried services on a single digital database. Parker has enlisted the help of the ICE to bring the utilities companies on board. 'It was a role I felt civils should be doing, ' she says.

She thanks her father for launching her into a civil engineering career. She wanted to be an architect, 'but I was crap at art, and better at maths, physics and geography, so my father said 'sounds like you ought to be a civil engineer''.

It was a summer job with the Lea Conservancy Catchment Board during her civils degree at Leeds University that first drew Parker to the water industry. The water boards were formed a year before she graduated in 1975.

'There was a lot of interesting work going on. The boards were trying to sort out the wastewater infrastructure, ' Parker says.

Spoilt for choice, Parker pragmatically chose the biggest board to work for, Thames Water, attracted by the range of opportunities it offered. She stayed for the next 20 years.

Initially working on water supply and sewerage projects, Parker later moved into technical management and business development.

'I fancied a technical support job in operations, ' she recalls, but she encountered resistance. Although the official excuse for blocking her application was her lack of experience in managing manual labour teams, Parker realised 'they were worried [as a woman] I wouldn't be able to deal with it'.

To get the necessary 'front line experience', in 1989 Parker took a nine month RedR posting in Afghanistan.

The trip was full of dramatic highs and lows, from surviving a lorry accident that nearly killed a member of her team, to importing 9,000 sapling trees to counteract flooding through deforestation. 'It made a huge difference to my self confidence, ' she recalls. 'I was in charge of my own destiny.' On her return to the UK, her new experience earned her the post of group manager for supply in the upper Thames region, where she says she was 'thrown in at the deep end'.

'A week after I started I had to shut one of the local treatment works because a fire upstream risked a major contamination to the supply, ' she explains.

A second RedR posting to Sarajevo in 1992 during the siege of the city saw Parker get local Serbs on side to help restabilise water supplies to Muslims, who were the focus of much of the hostility and violence.

It is the challenge of winning people round to her way of thinking, and mediating between disparate groups, that she particularly relishes as a project manager, Parker says. 'I like getting a wide range of people focusing on a target, ' and making 'a practical difference'.

Now running her own consultancy, Parker is developing a sideline in publishing. Her first title, Water under the bridge, recounts her extraordinary exploits in Afghanistan. For all copies bought from the ICE bookshop, £1 is donated to RedR.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.