When disaster strikes, engineers are there to help communities get back on track. But how has their role changed over the years?
Are traditional engineering skills still in demand? What is the 21st century approach to providing relief?
When CARE International UK head of humanitarian (technical team) Tom Newby went to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015, his engineering skills were not top priority.
Instead he spent most of his time with the charity in operational and logistical roles, setting up teams of local staff to deploy to the worst affected areas and working with government departments or other aid agencies. Newby, whose background is in engineering, believes this experience is common.
“You get asked to do quite a lot of different things,” he says. “There is very little scope for pure engineering roles.”
Little time for calculations
As Newby points out, in a disaster zone there is very little time for calculations.
Founded in the United States in 1945, CARE originally sent food packages and basic supplies to a starving post-war Europe.
Since then the charity has become a global network providing immediate disaster relief and long-term support in some of the world’s poorest countries.
You get asked to do quite a lot of different things. There is very little scope for pure engineering roles
Tom Newby, CARE International (UK)
Roles for engineers have transformed too – gone are the days when foreign engineers would fly in for a few months before disappearing, taking their skills with them.
“There used to be, perhaps , an assumption that you needed foreign technical expertise, and increasingly that’s not the case,” says Newby.
“Most countries can supply perfectly competent technical people and engineers.”
No one size fits all approach
According to Newby, the biggest change over the last 20 years has been a realisation that a one-size-fits-all approach to disaster response does not work. Increasingly, decision-making and technical capacity is being devolved.
This change is not without challenges – making decisions locally means moving the money locally, which can be politically sensitive. But making CARE’s expertise in areas like water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) more widely available to local people is the goal.
“The idea is that as much as possible we build the capacity and empower local organisations, local people, to do their own response, and make their own decisions,” says Newby.
For skills-sharing non-governmental organisation RedR, that change has already happened.
“Increasingly what we try to do in RedR is train nationals, not train British engineers to go out in response. Our aim is to train as many people who live in that country to respond,” explains RedR project coordinator Harriette Purchas.
“We’re not building capacity here, in Europe or in Australia, we’re trying to build capacity in the countries where the emergencies occur, because that’s how you’ll actually have longer lasting recovery.”
There used to be, perhaps, an assumption that you needed foreign technical expertise, and increasingly that’s not the case
Tom Newby, CARE International (UK)
Today RedR runs courses for humanitarian workers, covering traditional engineering roles such as overseeing borehole drilling through to project management – arguably an integral part of the modern engineer’s role.
The switch to skills provision started after the 1984/8 Ethiopian famine, explains Purchas, when the charity realised emergency responders needed to be better prepared and trained.
Not a holiday
“You can’t just go with some person thinking you’ve got a two week holiday,” she says. “It’s not a tourist activity.”
RedR developed training to broaden their engineers’ technical skills. But their softer skills needed work too.
One of the first courses to be offered was the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice, educating engineers on how they fitted into the wider disaster response.
Not just about engineers
“What they were contributing, it wasn’t just the engineer saving the world, it was actually a much bigger team than that,” she says.
Not for the first time, communication proved to be a big part of the engineers’ development.
“There’s no point in going in, installing latrines or whatever, if that’s actually not what people are wanting, or they’re not going to use them because you haven’t considered hygiene promotion and that aspect of it,” says Purchas.
“If people are still going to go out and use the fields because they don’t like using latrines, that’s a complete waste of money and your time.”
Not much pure engineering
“Except for the few real technical specialists, most engineers do not [do] very much engineering in their engineering job,” says Purchas.
Technology has had a big impact too. Although RedR still offers a “huge amount” of face-to-face training, the internet has transformed the organisation’s reach.
Remote training offers users gaming-style learning and e-platforms where learners in different time zones can work in the same team.
So if the focus is shifting to local disaster response, what will be the British engineer’s role in future disaster response?
“In an ideal world there probably wouldn’t be one, but in reality I think we’re a hell of a long way from that,” says Newby.
For now, he says, local communities should be allowed maximum autonomy in the rebuilding process. These considerations fed into Better Shelter, the award-winning flat pack shelter for refugees.
With support from the IKEA Foundation, a team from social enterprise group Better Shelter and United Nations refugee agency UNHCR consulted with refugees from Ethiopia and Iraq when developing the modular shelter, which offers 17.5m² of secure space.
With the average time spent in a refugee camp currently at 17 years, these 3.3m wide, 5.7m long and 2.8m high steel frame shelters are providing dignity for people more used to being housed in flimsy tents.
“You could stand up straight in our product,” says Better Shelter head of technology Tim de Haas.
“It’s something we [who are] not affected by war or disaster think of as normal.”
Flat pack accomodation
Each 170kg box comes with an IKEA-style manual and all the tools needed to put it up in around four hours. Solar panels on the roof provide four hours’ electricity each day. The front door to the shelter is lockable from both sides, the polyolefin wall panels are connected to the floor and a separation curtain provides some much-needed privacy.
The shelters cost just over £1,000 each to produce, although the cost has been brought down through mass production.
Although de Haas says using local materials and expertise is better, the shelters are designed for situations where it would be impractical.
“If there is nothing, or there [are] limited building materials – think of sub-Saharan Africa where there is no wood or there is very limited wood. How would you build something there? Then this is a good solution.”
Shelter gets MOMA seal of approval
Globally the shelter has been well received, winning the Beazley Design of the Year prize last year and attracting worldwide attention – there is even a permanent display of the shelter in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
But for de Haas, the feedback from people living in the shelters matters most.
“I’ve been in the field a couple of times to see how well it [the shelter] works. What I get back is very happy users,” he says.
“Because it’s just the simple things – they can stand up straight. They have a door. They have some windows they can open and close. The walls are not translucent.
“The people, they are happy with it. Sure, it’s not their home, but at least it’s a feeling of a home.”
The race to respond
Ever wondered what it’s like to be an aid worker in an emergency?
CARE International is offering the chance to find out.
On Saturday 1 July you can jump into a simulated disaster zone based on real life experiences from CARE workers across the globe.
Over a muddy, 10km-plus course you and your team will must provide aid to people in crisis as you race to respond.
When: Saturday 1 July
Where: Bletchley, Buckinghamshire
How much: The registration fee is £25 per person, and each team must fund raise £300 per team member
● www.careinternational.org.uk for more details
Engineering a better world | Disaster relief advances