Article - Issue 6, November 2000

Engineers in disaster relief

Jo da Silva

Download the article (541 KB)

Disasters make headline news on an almost daily basis; flooding in India and Mozambique, another earthquake in Armenia, hurricanes in Central America, fighting in Angola, the Balkans, Chechnya, East Timor or Sierra Leone. Elsewhere disasters persist unreported as conflicts rumble on, in some cases over decades.

The mass victims of disaster are ordinary people, who are suddenly no longer able to survive through their own efforts as they are left homeless, faced with the disintegration of their social structure and in many cases living in fear of persecution or renewed fighting. Whether the initial cause of the disaster is geological, meteorological or political, a lack of clean drinking water, hypothermia, malnutrition and disease have the potential to cause subsequent humanitarian disaster on a much greater scale. It is engineers who have proved essential to relief efforts in preventing disasters escalating in this way, thereby saving thousands of lives.

Technical skills

Engineers bring with them a host of technical skills that are essential to any relief effort. Traditionally, water engineers have been the most in demand since people need a minimum of 5 litres of drinking water each a day in order to survive, with a further 10–15 litres each recommended for washing and cooking. Even though this may seem a modest amount compared to an average figure of about 120 litres per head in the United Kingdom, providing it can be a real challenge. Oxfam engineers in Ngara were faced with supplying water to a refugee camp that had sprung up almost overnight, with a population estimated as 250,000. It was the second largest city in Tanzania with the only water source being a seasonal lake.

Identifying a potential water source, protecting it and then designing and constructing appropriate purifying, storage and distribution systems is a critical activity in any relief programme. The same is true for the sanitation engineer who works out how to dispose of sewage, waste and corpses in order to avert the spread of disease. During the Rwandan Emergency in 1994, the efforts of the medical profession to treat cholera in Goma would have been totally futile without the adequate clean water supply, latrines, waste dumps and burial grounds that the relief engineers organised.

In addition to blankets, tents or plastic sheeting which provide the most immediate form of warmth and rudimentary shelter for individuals, larger structures are needed for hospitals, distribution centres, warehouses, and registration posts. Supplies of construction materials as well as food and medical supplies rely on a serviceable road network. As I found in north west Tanzania, existing earth roads, used by the occasional bus or Pepsi van, are woefully inadequate for convoys of 12-tonne trucks serving hundreds of thousands of refugees, and quickly turn into rivers or quagmires in the rainy season. In the short term, I was able to make the roads passable by carrying out local labour-based repairs, installing culverts, re-grading short stretches and strengthening bridges. This allowed supplies to reach the refugee camps, whilst The Save the Children Fund sought funding and mobilised a further team of engineers to upgrade the main access roads.

In towns such as Grozny in Chechnya which have been devastated by bomb damage, structural engineers assess and make buildings safe to use as rudimentary hospitals and clinics. Electrical engineers arrange power supplies. Mechanical engineers organise the maintenance and repair of vehicle fleets, plant and pumps. Communications engineers have also begun to make a valuable contribution as satellite communication, mobile phones, e-mail and lap tops become a common feature of today’s relief operations.

RedR (Engineers for Disaster Relief)

In 1980 RedR was set up to facilitate the involvement of engineers in disaster relief. RedR provides a register of engineers who are both competent and willing to make themselves available at short notice, to assist front line humanitarian agencies to respond in the aftermath of a disaster. There are now 1200 members on the RedR Register, who have been selected through interview on the basis of their technical skills and personal characteristics. The majority are in full-time employment, and it is thanks to the co-operation of their employers that they are able to accept assignments, typically of 3 months duration.

RedR members have carried out almost 800 assignments in more than 70 countries, assisting almost 90 agencies including Oxfam, UNHCR, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médécins sans Frontières, The Save the Children Fund, CARE, Merlin and Christian Aid. In so doing, they have saved thousands, if not millions of lives, and given hope and comfort to many others.

As well as providing personnel, RedR is committed to increasing their effectiveness in the field. Since 1992, RedR has run training courses focussed on preparing its own members, and personnel from other agencies, for assignments. There are now about 30 courses each year. The subject matter is reviewed regularly and new courses are developed based on the experiences of members returning from the field. Whereas initially RedR training only covered ‘hard’ technical topics such as the provision of water, sanitation, and shelter, it has developed to include ‘softer’ issues, such as the needs of refugees, managerial skills, personal effectiveness, relationships with colleagues and stress which are never given in any c.v. but which are the keys to a successful mission.

These courses are complimented by Engineering in Emergencies: A Practical Guide for Relief Workers (written by Jan Davis, formerly RedR’s Training Manager and Bobby Lambert, RedR’s current Director). Both have helped RedR engineers and personnel from other agencies to perform effectively in the field when faced with the wide range of issues, both technical and non-technical, that characterise disaster relief.


The success of engineers in disaster relief cannot be attributed to their technical expertise alone. The technology is mostly rudimentary, and whilst an engineer may be sought initially for his or her technical specialism – be it water or roads – in the field their role is usually much more diverse.

Often, an engineer will represent the only technical capability on the ground, and consequently will be expected to provide expertise on a wide range of issues. RedR’s Training programme has responded to this, on the basis that the value of engineers in relief work derives from a structured approach to thinking about and developing solutions to problems which can be applied across a range of skills. Courses titled Construction in Emergencies, Operation of Plant, Vehicles and Electrical Supply and Bridge Assessment are aimed at a water engineer who may need to assess the implications of supplying water by tanker via an existing road network, or a structural engineer who is trying to turn a windowless, bombed-out shell into an operational emergency hospital.

Engineers are perhaps unique in their willingness to accept the ownership of a problem and take responsibility for both devising a solution which incorporates the requirements of others, and putting in place the logistics and resource to deliver it. In short, they will work out what needs to happen and make sure it does. In the process they will happily switch between the roles of Designer and Project or Construction Manager. This focus on an end result means that progress is assured, whilst at the same time a structured approach to information collection and staged decision making means it is inclusive of the interests of other parties, be they the victims of disaster, the local population or other agencies.

Engineers are also used to working as part of a team, and interacting with other members of that team to find a way forwards that balances complex demands. They appreciate that in emergencies problems are most effectively solved through an open-minded, inclusive approach that takes into consideration a range of social, technical and logistical constraints. This ability to appreciate team dynamics and respect the roles and contributions of colleagues cannot be underestimated in relief work, where teams are continually changing.

Finally, project management has become an integral part of effective relief work as agencies become more accountable to donor organizations and governments. Many engineers already possess the organisational, financial, planning and programming skills which are being increasingly sought. Likewise, communication and negotiation with authorities, suppliers or contractors is a normal part of an engineer’s experience whether in industry or in the field.

The future

The contribution engineers have made in terms of the numbers of people who have survived the aftermath of disasters is greater than any other profession. Last year alone, RedR responded to 200 assignments, and made a difference to thousands, if not millions, of lives. Twenty years ago RedR was persuading aid agencies and donors alike of the potential value engineers could bring to disaster relief. Now it is generally recognised that the effectiveness of the international humanitarian response is dependent on the effectiveness of aid workers. In particular, there is a growing appreciation of the value of engineers in emergency relief, and the diverse roles they play. It is therefore likely that the demand for competent engineers will increase, particularly as the indications are that conflict, poverty and climate change will result in even more disasters in the future. As a profession, we must continue to support the work of RedR in responding to the aftermath of disasters, as well as trying to prevent disasters happening in the first place.

‘Of the 100 engineers Oxfam sent into the Kosovo crisis, as many as 85 were RedR members’

Paul Sherlock
Head of Public Health Engineering, Oxfam

Jo da Silva
Former Honorary Secretary of RedR International

Jo da Silva is a RedR Member, former Chair of RedR (UK) and Hon. Secretary of RedR International. For more information about RedR visit

[Top of the page]