Rain from the skirts of Hurricane Mitch lashed the ancient Landcruiser as it hurtled along the dark tar snake of the Pan American Highway. Cans of burning oil belched out black smoke and orange flames in a line along the carriageway to demarcate roadworks. Sodden policemen waved us on as workers tried to salvage their equipment from the storm. I had arrived in Guatemala.
A few days later I was standing by the shore of Lake Atitlan, in the town of San Lucas Toliman. I was staring down a large diameter well choked with electric cables and rising mains. Off to my a left a team of community members were digging a trench for a new 4″ PVC pipeline that would snake up the ridge behind the town and down to the scattered finca (coffee plantation) hamlets on the other side.
The foreman turned to me and asked whether their pump would have enough power to get water up to their people living on the side on the volcano. All eyes were on me. Not hostile, not friendly, just expecting an answer from this young gringo ‘expert’. I was gripped by fear. My stomach cramped, my heart-rate went through the roof. This wasn’t a university field trip, my career as a WASH professional had just begun.
How do I start a career in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)?
This is a question that comes to us at the RWSN Secretariat quite frequently, and I don’t have a simple answer. Despite having a Masters Degree in Community Water Supply and Sanitation (Cranfield University) and reasonable international experience, it took over ten years to get into the sector that I really wanted to be in.
In talking to colleagues and contacts the key elements seem to be:
- a passion for WASH. (If you want “A Career” then become a banker.)
- the right skills and qualifications (BSc/MSc/PhD in water management, social change, engineering, knowledge management).
- experience – this can be transferable from other disciplines, but programmes like Pearce Corps and VSO seem to be really good for total immersion in a different culture and way of life.
- networking, contacts and luck – talking to the right person at the right place at the right time. You need to be lucky, but luck can be made.
All of this takes a rather Northern perspective. My view is that while there is a role for practitioners from the northern countries, rural water services that last can only become a reality if every country has a strong network of committed WASH professionals. Here are some ideas for what we could do as network to facilitate this, but I would like to hear yours:
- Professional accreditation and recognition (like ‘Chartered’ status in the UK) to assess and recognise ongoing professional development.
- Pooling of training materials (such as Water4’s excellent manual drilling videos, or Aguayuda’s water manuals for teachers and students).
- Developing new short courses where gaps are identified, such as the Writing for WASH course.
- Career stories from a range of countries and roles to inspire and guide the next generation of young professionals.
When considering how we improve rural water services we need to look at not just what is being done, but who is going to do it.
So how did you wash up doing WASH?