How did you wash up doing WASH?

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 steep learning curve in Guatemala (c) Skat

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?

7 thoughts on “How did you wash up doing WASH?

  1. Interesting post, though I think you’re missing an important issue. While there’s clearly a role for WASH specialists, my personal experience is that experience and understanding of a particular context is at least as important to development work as sectoral expertise.

    In other words, the key question _should_ be “how did you wash up working in Ethiopia?” or “how did you wash up working in Malawi”? Etc.

  2. Hi Ben,
    You’re right. The RWSN Director, Kerstin, did her PhD on low cost drilling in Uganda and then she stayed as independent consultant and then working for the Ministry of Water & Environment. Her decade of both sectoral and contextual knowledge and experience has proven extremely useful since.

    What has been your experience?

  3. I WASHed up doing WASH because I knew it was something I really wanted to do, and have a passion for. The fact that basic services, that we in the ‘North’ take for granted, are simply not available in the same way to a large part of the world strikes me as unjust and unfair. I have also spent a lot of time in India, a country that has given me so much, and so I felt that this was a way I could give something back. Combining the skills that I have with that passion lead me to do the MSc at Cranfield and then, with a little good fortune, to rural Bihar in North-East India working on a large multi-sectorial project as a WASH specialist.

    Unfortunately the project had some very fundamental problems that made it very difficult to work. As a result we were forced to reconsider our commitment to that particular project. In the end we had to leave and unfortunately after spending a lot of time hunting unsuccessfully for work/research within the WASH sector in India, South Asia and then more widely, I had to look elsewhere. I finally settled on a PhD in Hydrogeology and Hydrogeophysics back in the UK. It was an extremely hard decision at the time, and one that I still question, as it has taken me away from what I really want to do for at least four years. However with the difficulties in finding work, not only then but the challenges in the finding work in the sector in general despite over two years of experience working in WASH mainly in India, and my current family situation it is the right one for now. The family situation in particular is difficult. I think that one of the main challenges in the WASH sector is striking a balance between the unpredictability of work in WASH and having a family. For now the family had to come first.

    I absolutely agree with the idea that ‘contextual’ experience is important in development work. So many of the issues that we encountered in Bihar were due to some of the societal and cultural factors that were unique to that particular region, let alone the whole of India. I totally believe that the people that are best placed to solve those issues are those from that culture and who live and work in those areas. Many of the other issues were related to the structure and mechanisms of the governmnet department responsible for WASH – the public health engineering department (PHED). In terms of achieving results on the ground at a large scale, understanding and working with the PHED was the only way to achieve that, that required a certain level of sensitivity and patience, that ‘contextual’ experience brings.

    I really hope to be able to build up that ‘contextual’ experience after completing my PhD. I am hoping that during the PhD I might also be able to do a internship back in South Asia within the WASH sector. I intend to remain involved in WASH work where I can through volunteering during my PhD. I am still keen to get back into the sector after completing the PhD, but I am worried that the four years away from WASH and with little or no in-country experience gained in that time I will have the same problems looking for work in the future. Despite the fact that we had to leave Bihar, I learned a lot about the challenges faced at the groundlevel, all the way up to the senior government levels, but also about the problems that development programmes often suffer from and the inevitable impact that has on those working at the groundlevel.

  4. it,s very good I personally welcom and I am ready my contribution today I am very busy I send you my comments.
    thank you a lot
    head of water sanitation minstry of water somalia

  5. Good article Sean. I’m currently in the process of trying to change carriers and get into the WASH sector, and while it’s been difficult, I’m starting to piece together where I need to head. Fortunately I feel very strongly about WASH issues and cannot see my life ending up anywhere else, so that’s good motivation.
    As far as advice I can give to people looking to work in the WASH sector…I would say there are a few key things that have helped me. One is to read…and read a lot. Apart from a formal education in WASH there is so much that you can learn just spending some time on the internet or at your local library. There’s nothing bad that can come out of reading more, you can only get more rounded in your views and more educated.
    The next thing is to talk to people and not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You’ll be amazed at how many people have been in your situation and are very willing to help. I know i was. I recently asked for some advice on LinkedIn and have been overwhelmed with the number of comments and suggestions I’ve received.
    Something else is that you should try and narrow down what you want to do fairly early. There are so many different jobs and fields of study that fit into the WASH category that if you go in without narrowing it down at least some you’re going to be running in circles until you do. (I’m speaking from experience)
    Other than that just follow your heart and you’ll get there. I’ve talked to people that work in the WASH field and have told me it took them almost a decade to get to where they wanted to be and they would never take it back.

    Regarding a couple of the other comments I completely agree that community involvement is key to getting anything done. Besides giving you an “in” with what’s going on in the area and how people are feeling about the project it can help boost the local economy if the project requires workers. Even more important is that it gives people a sense of pride in what is being built. And when people have pride in what was built (or if they built it themselves) they will work to keep it maintained and running. There are so many water pumps and latrines that were installed by NGOs without any input from the community, and then they break and no one uses them anymore. All that work for nothing.

    That leads me to my next point which is education. Education is key to making any project work. Educating people on why they need to wash their hands, why they need to drink only clean water, why they shouldnt go to the bathroom near where their water is, and if a water pump or latrine are being built, education on how to maintain them. I’ve read so many stories of latrines being built but there was no education behind it. So when whoever installed them left no one used the latrines because they were used to going to the bathroom outside and werent educated on why they should use the latrine. I truly believe that programs like Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) and the like are the only way to go about implementing real change and making a difference in people’s lives.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. it,s very good story and it,s very important lesson our country somlia particulary my office we are very busy how we store our position in the community we train more people about wash we used media like tv, radio,mobile, massage and most of the people of the cities are well active so Government is the best of the controls of the wash activity instead of NGOs.
      we also prepared school in wash as soon as posible so
      thank you very much your article
      best regards

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