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Humanitarian Engineering With RedR

Humanitarian Engineering With RedR

About the Author


  • RedR is an international disaster relief charity which trains aid workers and provides skilled professionals to humanitarian programmes worldwide, helping to save and rebuild the lives of people affected by natural and man-made disasters. RedR was founded by an engineer in 1980. Thirty years on, engineers are still at the heart of RedR, forming the core of our 1700-strong Membership and providing essential funds through our Patron firms.
  • Find out more: RedR Website

With Wear Red for RedR day tomorrow, I thought it would be especially apt to invite RedR back for another Being Brunel guest post. This time they obliged by sharing a full interview with one of their affiliates, who tells us what life as an engineer in the humanitarian sector is like.

James Brown, 29, is an engineer and design specialist. He is a RedR affiliate, who has completed RedR UK training courses in Essentials of Humanitarian Practice and Field Logistics in Emergencies. He has one year’s experience in humanitarian response work, most recently in Myanmar, where he has worked in water provision and sanitation.

Can you tell me about the project you’re working on in Myamar, and your role on it?

The vast majority of our work is ‘software’ – building awareness and mobilising communities to ensure that they are able to keep themselves healthy.

I’m working as a public health engineer with Oxfam in Rakhine state, where violence last year between Rohingya and Rakhine people has resulted in over 140,000 people living in temporary settlements.

One project we’re working on looks at increasing emergency preparedness in case of a shock event such as flooding, or in case of a disease outbreak such as Cholera.

Our cholera preparedness work is focused on identifying and mitigating key public health risks in camps. This is often related to access, quality of latrines and hand washing facilities. But we’ve also been doing a lot of work on hygiene promotion, raising awareness of the way that cholera and other diseases can be spread through the faecal-oral route, the importance of hand washing and how to care for someone in the early stages of the disease. Although we have been involved in decommissioning latrines, and we will be installing new flood-proofed latrines and working on water supplies in some areas the vast majority of our work is ‘software’ – building awareness and mobilising communities to ensure that they are able to keep themselves healthy.

We are also developing a rapid risk assessment survey tool to help all agencies here identify where specific public health risks exist.

In the event of a cholera outbreak we would be able to support health agencies to respond by providing safe water and sanitation facilities to treatment centres, and by setting up oral rehydration points (ORPs) where rehydration salts are distributed to people suffering from diarrhoea. There were worrying levels of diarrhoea in a few camps in September, so we set up several ORPs to monitor the number of diarrhoea cases. Health coverage in many camps is patchy so it can be difficult to get good data about disease prevalence. With the end of the rainy season now behind us we will begin preparing for the cyclone season in May, which signals the beginning of the rains and the high risk period.

There are needs on both sides and it is important to be working in a conflict sensitive way, addressing those needs with balance.

We are currently developing projects that address the longer term risks in Rakhine, we are statistically due a big cyclone next year for example, and there are many things we can do now to prepare, such as identifying safe havens and ensuring they have resilient WASH [Ed. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene] facilities ready.

The other project is working with management of latrine sludge; many latrines in camps are filling up very quickly and the problem of what to do with this sludge is a major one. We are developing techniques to both remove this sludge from the latrine pits, and then treat it so that it can be disposed of safely, or even used as a fertiliser.

We have been piloting manual and diesel pumps to desludge latrines, and then transporting the waste in barrels to a central processing site where we first treat with lime, and then dry the sludge in solar drying beds.

Who will be benefitting from these projects?

We are mainly working with IDPs [Ed. Internally Displaced Persons] living in temporary shelters around Sittwe, however we are also planning on expanding to cover villages in the surrounding area. Rakhine is one of the poorest states in Myanmar and even before the conflict the needs were great.

We are working with both Rohingya and Rakhine people, as both groups were affected by the violence. The vast majority of the IDPs are Rohingya though, and because of movement restrictions and crowded communal shelters their vulnerability is higher, but there are needs on both sides and it is important to be working in a conflict sensitive way, addressing those needs with balance.

Eight to ten families live together in communal bamboo long houses. We are coming into the winter season now and many families are requesting blankets for the night.

[We are] building community resilience through training and strengthening community structures that will enable communities to respond to shocks in the future.

Can you tell me about some of the hardships this community is suffering?

The temporary settlements are crowded, with eight to ten families living together in communal long houses. Muslim IDPs are denied citizenship, and are subject to movement restrictions that stop them being able to work, or access medical facilities or markets. In the rainy season (May-November) flooding is a major risk, latrines are especially vulnerable to flooding and the public health risks associated with flooded latrines are obvious.

Will your project enable this community to help themselves in the future?

Oxfam is working hard to advocate for the lifting of travel restrictions for the Rohingya, without these basic human rights there is little hope that they will be able to survive without external assistance. However the Emergency Preparedness & Response project is building community resilience through training and strengthening community structures that will enable communities to respond to shocks in the future.

We have trained food shops in the market to handle food in a hygienic way, we have set up community mechanisms for latrine and general environment cleaning, we have trained camp management committees to disseminate AWD awareness messages.

How are you able to apply the skills you learnt on your two RedR training courses to the work you’re doing now?

The essentials of humanitarian practice course has been very helpful here, because of the complex context we are often in the situation of having to refer to the guiding principles that were discussed during the training.

Because of the ongoing tensions between the Rohingya and Rakhine people, and the lack of trust the local communities have for NGOs it is often difficult to work in Rakhine. It is also very important to keep in mind differing needs due to age, gender, ethnicity etc. because in this context they are often difficult to see.

How did your placement with GOAL help prepare you for this work?

Although the context here is very different, the experience of working with GOAL in South Sudan was a fantastic introduction to working in emergencies. We faced a widespread Hepatitis E outbreak in Maban, responding to this has taught me a huge amount about working with health teams to combat the spread of WASH related diseases. This has been very useful as we plan preparedness and responses to a potential cholera outbreak here.

Co-ordination is clearly key. Can you give any examples of what you learnt about working with health teams in South Sudan which is transferable to containing disease outbreaks in Mynmar?

Working with health teams in South Sudan was brilliant because we managed to develop ways of working closely with health partners. Information sharing is really key here, because agencies are working over different camps and health facilities are not available permanently everywhere. In Rakhine those ways of working are not completely developed yet, and we’ve done a lot of work between clusters to ensure that information is shared well.

If you are interested you can learn more about RedR’s humanitarian training and the Affiliates scheme, by watching this short video, or visiting


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