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When disaster strikes, as in Haiti, engineers are needed. But how do you get work reconstructing catastrophe-hit communities – and do you have what it takes to do a good job?

They are the heart-stopping moments of TV news bulletins. A hurricane strikes, flattening the flimsy homes of a remote community. A flood claims the lives of countless villagers and leaves many more without food or shelter. A brief but brutal war wrecks the lives of terrified civilians. An earthquake destroys a country's infrastructure. 

When such scenes are beamed into our living rooms most viewers are left with an aching sense of helplessness. Yes, they can donate to the charity relief line, but other than that, what can they do?

Engineers are different. They have the skills to make a difference to victims of any disaster, whether natural or man made. An engineer can rebuild homes, reconstruct roads and reconnect water supplies.

Take the Indian Ocean tsunami. On Boxing Day 2004, giant waves obliterated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and several other countries. Many died, more than two million people were displaced.

By the third anniversary of the disaster more than 100,000 homes had been rebuilt in the Indonesian province of Aceh alone, along with 800 schools, 600 hospitals and clinics, ten airstrips, 200 bridges and 1,240 miles of roads.

It’s tough, sometimes traumatic, but always rewarding work. But an altruistic engineer can’t just hop on a plane bound for the nearest shell-shocked corner of the world and get stuck in. They’d be more of a hindrance than a help. So if you’d like to get involved in reconstructing countries ravaged by war or nature, what’s the best way to go about it?

One way is to join the military: one of the jobs of British army engineers in Helmand province, Afghanistan, and in Iraq, has been reconstruction.

That’s quite a major step, of course. Luckily, there are civilian routes to applying engineering skills where they are most desperately needed.

Multi-national corporations often play a part in rebuilding disaster zones. If this sort of work appeals, it is worth finding out which firms have been awarded contracts by the Government. For example, you can see details of companies supplying the Department for International Development here.

Even then, you will find that the opportunities for relatively inexperienced graduate engineers to work on such sensitive projects are limited. Search specialist online recruitment sites for jobs in developing countries and you find they are mainly seeking engineers with experience.

In addition, large companies often prefer to use local engineering expertise when operating abroad. “We have qualified engineers working on transmission sites in locations such as Singapore, Oman and Thailand but they are mainly managing local staff,” says Philip Rood of the VT Group, a response which is not untypical.

The charitable sector offers better opportunities. Leading the way is RedR, the training and recruitment charity for disaster relief. It provides training, consultancy and support to aid agencies and their staff all over the world, increasing their effectiveness in the field.

RedR ensures that skilled engineering, health and security professionals are always available to respond when disasters occur, through the introduction of new aid workers into the sector as well as the placement of experienced aid workers via its register of members.

Those members are assessed to ensure they have the skills necessary to make a positive contribution to humanitarian work and RedR membership is a considered to be a kite mark of quality across the sector.

RedR chief executive Martin McCann is in no doubt: engineers are crucial in disaster zones. “Probably the greatest killer following the actual event [is] issues related to water and sanitation, and issues related to shelter. You get cholera and other water-borne diseases in camps, and the Pakistan earthquake showed the need for transitional shelter as it happened just as winter was coming on.”

The impact of early-intervention engineering is ‘extraordinary’. “Our members have gone out to camps where the death rate has been three to four thousand a month – and within a few weeks it’s down to three or four – all because they fixed the water supply.

“Engineers were the rock gods of Victorian England – the Bazalgettes and Brunels. But the British public doesn’t really see engineers any more. In these kind of disaster environments, the skillsets that engineers bring really do stand out as making a difference between life and death.”

Even with RedR’s training, it is impossible to be fully prepared for what you encounter in a disaster zone, Martin said. “It can be highly traumatic. The society you are with is undergoing particular stress and strain given the disaster it has gone through.

“To have thrown on top of that the sight of rotting bodies piled up around you in, say, a tsunami area – that’s a bit much to ask someone to take first time around.”

That’s why RedR’s members are expected to have professional and field experience and exposure to different cultures. And they need certain personality traits too, Martin believes.

“The one you always get is flexibility, the other one is sense of humour. People who have a need to micro manage would find it very difficult.

“People who need significant structure to perform at their best, they’re also going to find it a challenge because a lot of times you are thrown into a place where there isn’t a structure. You have to create it.”

Risk is inevitable in this sort of work. RedR runs personal security courses on how to keep safe. “Since the beginning of the Afghanistan war we’ve seen aid workers identified completely with foreign agencies. This wasn’t helped by American army people disguising themselves as aid workers to better collect information.

“Outside of that area we’re seen as bona fide targets. Things like car-jacking and kidnapping are de rigeur in Darfur.”

The only infallible way to find out if you’re made of the right stuff is to try it. “There are always people you think will be fine and they just can’t take it, and people you are doubtful about who just shine.

“I know one young lady who lived on the Canadian east coast and she came to Ottawa for her training to go overseas. After four days she left because she was going to go to the sub-Sahara and she realised she’d never been away from the sound of the sea when going to sleep. It was something she had never thought of before.”

Those who go to a disaster zone and survive are changed by the experience. “Sometimes it’s even harder to come back than to be there,” says Martin. “You come home and everyone’s really enthralled by what you did for about seven minutes. Then they ask, did you see Coronation Street and how do you think Man U’s going to do this year?

“You’re prepared for overseas to be different. You’re not prepared for the extent that you change and when you come home you’re different.”

Potential employers also notice a change. “All employers, particularly in the engineering field, appreciate that if somebody’s been in that environment they’re going to be more creative, they’re going to be more self-sufficient, they’re going to get on and do things.

“This is particularly appreciated, I find, with the consulting engineering firms, who are more likely to have overseas portfolios. If someone can hack it in Darfur or Rwanda they’ll certainly be able to handle Beijing or Singapore.”

The best introduction to RedR is the So You Want To Be A Relief Worker one-day course – details can be found at www.redr.org.uk.

But given that young engineers are unlikely to have the experience necessary to become a RedR member, Martin suggests turning instead to disaster relief charities such as Goal Ireland, which has a UK office. “They will take people at a lower level of experience than, let’s say, an Oxfam or a Save The Children.” And engineers with strong religious convictions may find that faith-based charities are more willing to post them overseas for disaster relief.

There is a third route. RedR works with Engineers Without Borders to promote its placement programme. EWB is not a disaster relief organisation, but it is a student-led charity with a mission to help developing countries through engineering. As such, it gives young engineers the chance to work overseas and notch up the experience RedR requires. (See details of programme in panel, right.)

Gareth Lewis runs the placement programme at EWB-UK. He can trace his interest in engineering from a Blue Peter appeal for Water Aid. During his time reading civil engineering at Bath University he took a year out to work for VSO, and worked on hydro electric and other schemes in a rural area of the Philippines.

That sparked his interest in EWB and he won a placement in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa after he graduated in 2006. He worked on road schemes and completed a water supply project which delivered clean water to 1,000 households.

How much you gain from an experience like this depends on the sort of person you are, Gareth said. “If you’re confident enough to keep pestering people for work, then you’re in a better position than if you wait for things to happen. That’s when you can get frustrated.”

Volunteers chosen to take part in an EWB programme are given week-long training on a residential course. This covers everything from conflict resolution to health and safety overseas.

The organisation always follows advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – if a country is deemed entirely unsafe it doesn’t send people there. But there is flexibility: volunteers can be placed in a country which has suffered unrest as long as the work is located in a region far away from the trouble.

“A lot of countries have issues but the volunteer won’t necessarily come across them. We try to think about them rather than just say no,” Gareth explained.

So what advice would he give to someone heading out to work in often remote areas of the developing world? “The work culture is very different. People’s priorities differ. If you expect everybody to work like they work in London you’re going to be a bit surprised.

“You need to be quite adaptable. If things don’t turn out the way you thought they were going to you have to be able to keep a sense of humour and do what you can. You don’t have to be some sort of superperson to do it but don’t get too downhearted if things are different to what you expected.”

A little knowledge about the area can save a lot of trouble, Gareth said. “In some places you don’t go out after dark. The main thing is to keep talking to the people around you, your neighbours, your work colleagues.”

His experience of working in both the Philippines and South Africa made him more resilient and willing to take the initiative, Gareth said. It also left him with wonderful memories of the majestic African landscape, the people and the wildlife. Oh, and the Hollywood superstars.

“We visited an Aids orphanage run by a friend of ours. A couple of Desperate Housewives and Samuel L Jackson just rocked up doing some sort of visit in this really remote part of South Africa. That was quite something!”

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