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RedR to the rescue

DISASTER RELIEF

Geotechnical engineers play a key role in the work of RedR, which sends civil engineers all over the world to help rebuild infrastructure damaged by wars and natural disasters.

Media coverage of the 'war against terror' has focused almost as much on the humanitarian aspects of the Afghanistan crisis as on the military campaign. Now the Taliban regime has been deposed, the hardship suffered by many of the country's inhabitants has come to light.

So, while bombs are dropped and extra soldiers drafted in, Western aid agencies are trying to alleviate the poverty caused by years of occupation, civil war and a hostile climate.

It is a situation familiar to the relief agencies that provide shelter, food, water and sanitation for those displaced by natural disasters or civil emergencies. Many of the people working in Afghanistan will have carried out similar tasks in Bosnia, Chechnya or southern Africa.

Input from engineers who can provide the necessary technical skills in water supply, sanitation, road and bridge building is vital to their endeavours.

Robert Hodgson, a geotechnical engineering consultant, has been a volunteer on the books of Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief (RedR) since it was set up 21 years ago. He is vague about the number of relief missions he has taken part in, but puts it at 'fifteenish'.

RedR trains and supplies engineers in response to requests from aid organisations. Hodgson has worked for various charities including World Vision, the International Red Cross and Oxfam. His first 'mission' was to Uganda, where he worked with Oxfam for three months building roads in the drought-hit northeastern region of the country.

He recalls: 'On the first few days, you always feel a bit nervous because you don't know what you are going to find or if your current skills base is going to be useful. ' At the time, Hodgson had just returned to his first employer, RedR patron Binnie & Partners (now Binnie Black & Veatch), after taking a masters degree in soil mechanics at Imperial College, London.

He opted to join RedR because he wanted to do something 'useful', and he knew a lot about the organisation, having been at college with its founder, Peter Guthrie.

Initially, he assumed his geotechnical skills would be appreciated, but soon discovered that general engineering ability, diplomacy and flexibility were more useful qualifications.

'RedR doesn't get many requests for geotechnical engineers, ' he explains. 'The aid agencies might not know what we do. For a few years, I forgot I was a geotechnical engineer in RedR terms. ' Ironically, Hodgson was recruited for his first mission on the basis of his geotechnical skills and experience of drilling water wells.

'But by the time I left the UK, they had found someone else to do that, ' he recalls. Instead, he was involved in building drift roads across river beds.

'The rivers dry up for most of the year. We built concrete causeways across three of them to turn them from seasonal roads into all weather roads, ' he explains. 'As a foundation engineer, it wasn't really roads, it was foundations. ' In 1994, the British Red Cross put in a request on behalf of the International Red Cross for a geotechnical engineer to go to the Bosnian town of Pale and help restore water supplies to Sarajevo.

Hodgson recalls: 'I had just been recruited to do that job, when I got a call from the Red Cross saying it needed someone to go to Mostar the next day. The peace deal had just been signed and it wanted someone on the ground straight away. So I aborted my very first geotechnical job to do water supply in Mostar. ' Hodgson describes himself as 'a fairly general engineer in RedR terms', having worked in water supply, road and bridge building.

However, he believes his geotechnical background has stood him in good stead.

'It's a skill you always use, ' he says. 'Even water supply projects often involve digging holes.

'It's a useful background to have and you can bolt most things on to it. Structural engineers don't tend to worry much about what's underneath, whereas I'm interested in what's applying the loads to my foundations. ' During his 21 years of involvement with the organisation, Hodgson has seen a change in the nature of the emergencies RedR helps with.

'In the early days, we tended to see things like droughts as natural events - although we were aware there was a man-made element to it, ' he says.

'Recently, RedR missions have been much more directly warrelated, with RedR members on the real frontline. ' While Hodgson's early missions were not in war zones, they were in locations that were far from safe. His first mission to Uganda, for example, coincided with elections and saw Hodgson and his team 160km from the nearest telephone and without radios.

Later, during the famine in Sudan of 1984 and 1985, he found himself working close to the war for Eritrean independence.

Since then, he has been directly involved in countries while war is going on. 'The first time I went to Bosnia, it was a step into the unknown, ' he says. 'But sometimes it is more dangerous post-war. ' His experience in Chechnya bears this out. The first time he visited was in 1995, while conflict was raging in the Russian state.

'During the war, it was OK as long as you stayed away from the war zone, ' he says.

He returned later that year, once the fighting had stopped, to support the local water company in its efforts to get water systems running again. However, the conflict restarted and Hodgson did not return until 1997, when, he says, 'we thought things had settled down'.

He found the country more dangerous in peace time than it had been during the war. 'We had to be extremely careful about how we moved about and who knew where we were going, ' he says.

'There were cars in front and behind, and we kept in radio contact all the time. ' Some of the work proposed as a result of his second visit did start, but was aborted when the head of the local United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office was kidnapped (he was later freed unharmed). Hodgson fears that many of the team of local staff he worked with in Chechnya may not have survived the ongoing conflict.

Despite such setbacks, he has remained committed to RedR, and is now its vice chair. Family and work commitments - including four children, a small farm, his own consultancy and a research fellowship at Exeter University - prevent him from undertaking the longer missions of two or three months. However, he is still often asked to carry out fact-finding missions lasting two or three weeks.

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