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An Australian engineer in Yemen

18 Aug 2016

Armed conflict escalated into a full-scale war in Yemen in March 2015, exacerbating the already massive medical and humanitarian needs.  With much of the population on the move or displaced, Médecins Sans Frontières have scaled up medical activities in many regions to deal with the crisis. Australian engineer Jeanne Vidal travelled to Khamer in the north west of the country to help improve water and sanitation systems in Médecins Sans Frontières supported medical facilities. 

 

I am an engineer by trade but I have always been drawn to humanitarian work. Feeling unmotivated at my desk, I applied with Médecins Sans Frontières and set off for Ethiopia in 2014. I’ve since been on two other assignments to South Sudan and Yemen. On my most recent trip Yemen, I worked as a water and sanitation specialist and an external activities manager. I was responsible for making sure Médecins Sans Frontières' facilities had clean water supplies and effective waste management systems.

The situation North Amran governorate in Yemen was relatively calm while we were there; and as a result people were fleeing conflict to settle in this area. Médecins Sans Frontières has been providing general consultations to displaced people with mobile clinics and assisting with water and sanitation activities in Khamer and Huth. The medical activity manager and I would drive outside the city each day to visit one of three satellite clinics or Médecins Sans Frontières-supported health centre. Due to security measures we could only spend limited time at each location, so we always had to keep one eye on the clock.

"The bombed part of the centre was closed off and we worked to re-establish the emergency room, maternity ward, sterilisation room and pharmacy"

We helped to rehabilitate the Médecins Sans Frontières-supported Ministry of Health centre in Al-Qafla which was directly hit during an air strike. The bombed part of the centre was closed off and we worked to re-establish the emergency room, maternity ward, sterilisation room and pharmacy. I organised contractors to repair doors, paint the maternity ward and rearrange the layout so it would function more efficiently. These small changes brightened the atmosphere in the hospital and helped improve the day-to-day operations run more smoothly, we noticed a difference in the medical staff. The centre didn’t have proper waste management processes in place – all the medical waste was being dumped or burned, which is a big issue for infection control. So we also helped establish a sealed waste management system to improve the hygiene standards and trained staff on how to use it. 

We also visited internally displaced persons (IDPs) sites in Khamer. The war has taken such a heavy toll on civilians – the United Nations estimates there are more than 2.8 million IDPs in Yemen. I surveyed the sites with my water and sanitation specialist hat on, reporting any issues to Oxfam who are the main water, sanitation and hygiene provider in the sites. Oxfam was trucking water into the city from a bore hole 20 kilometres away, which was quite an undertaking. When I left they were connecting a pipe network to improve the water supply, so hopefully that is up and running for them now.

People living in IDP sites need a proper water network, so having technical skills, whether that is creating a pipeline for a better water supply or knowing how to treat water from swamps to turn it into potable water, are really viable in a humanitarian crisis. Whether you have a medical background or non-medical background such as an engineer or a logistician; your skills are useful. More than once a medical practitioner has told me, “We couldn’t function without water and sanitation specialists".

 

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