We sat down with Relief International’s Technical Director for Water and Sanitation Jill Lauren Hass to understand the challenges that refugees, displaced families, and those living in fragile settings face in accessing clean water in the midst of a global pandemic.
Tell us about yourself. When and why did you join Relief International?
I worked for more than a decade as an engineer in the private sector in Canada. While I enjoyed it, I desperately wanted a career where I could be more hands on.
My life was forever changed when I accepted a job with the U.N. Refugee Agency, known by its acronym UNHCR, in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. When the camp was set up in 2012, it was designed to provide temporary housing for some of the 650,000 Syrian refugees who fled war in their country for safety in Jordan. Today Za’atari is home to roughly 80,000 people and resembles more of a bustling micro-city than a traditional refugee camp. Together, with my UN team, I worked to design and install the world’s largest water network and sewage system in a refugee camp.
In 2019, I joined Relief International as technical director of the organization’s large and growing portfolio of water, sanitation, and hygiene programs. What interested me in working for Relief International is that we work in many of the world’s most fragile settings, completing our work predominantly through our local staff on the ground; the majority of whom are members of the communities where we work. The localization of our work style is what I love most about Relief International.
What inspired you to pursue a career as an Emergency Water & Sanitation Civil Engineer?
Thirty years ago, most people could not understand why I would want to have a long and glamorous career in sewage design! Now, with the investment of big players like Bill and Melinda Gates into the improvement of sanitation systems, my line of work is increasingly being recognized for its impact on public health. The general public now understands the importance of sanitation. I’m a big believer in the fact that if we effectively managed our sewage then we’d never have to treat our water.
This year, World Water Day falls amidst the coronavirus pandemic. How will access to clean water make a difference in protecting these vulnerable communities against the virus?
When we talk about humanitarian crises, we often talk about them in terms of water. There’s either too much water, too little water, or the water is too dirty.
We often take this precious resource for granted, but when natural disasters or pandemics strike, access to clean water can be the difference between life and death. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, one important piece of advice we’re given to protect ourselves is to wash our hands multiple times a day with soap and clean water. But, for people in fragile settings, clean water isn’t always available.
We’ve already seen that the coronavirus spreads quickly through these areas, overwhelming already fragile health systems. In Iran, the virus has spread to every province in the country, with tens of thousands confirmed cases. Relief International is responding to the emergency in Iran by purchasing protective medical supplies and other health items to keep frontline health workers safe as they work to control the spread of the virus. While many cities in Iran are well-developed, there are rural pockets of the country where drought and flood have made access to clean water extremely limited, and we have projects that address this need as well, which are important to containing the spread of disease.
Meanwhile, migrations between Iran and its neighbor Afghanistan have led to the spread of the coronavirus. The countries shares a 572 mile border. Lack of clean water and poor sanitation is a major problem in war-torn Afghanistan, where Relief International has some of its largest water projects. It is clear that the access to clean water, healthcare, and pandemic preparedness are all on display when we talk about the fragile settings where Relief International works.
Why is access to clean water so vital during humanitarian crises?
In the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian crisis, organizations will launch a large medical response to tend to the immediate injuries and other health concerns of refugees and the displaced. However, there is almost always a second wave of cases two to three days later, when survivors will return to our clinics with symptoms of preventable water-borne illnesses. Without access to clean water, many people will have no other choice but to drink the water around them, even if it is dirty. It also prevents them from washing their hands, bathing, and rinsing off their fruits and vegetables– all of which can contribute to the outbreak of disease. We see this often with cholera outbreaks following natural disasters as in the case of Haiti in 2010.
In emergency situations, we are always working to get water in as soon as possible, if not within the first 24 hours. Otherwise, we will see hundreds of cases at our clinics of preventable illnesses – the direct result of drinking dirty water.
What is Relief International doing to tackle the world’s water crisis?
We’re witnessing a global health crisis in which water plays a vital role in slowing the spread of disease. We’ve worked in the world’s most fragile settings for more than sixty years to improve access to this precious commodity, particularly in communities hardest hit by the effects of climate change. Relief International responds to these increasing natural disasters by supporting these communities year round by preparing them too deal with these shocks and stresses in their daily lives. We are also among the first responders on the ground when disaster strikes, delivering critical aid in the form of clean water, food, healthcare, and other life-saving services.
In South Sudan, there is a frightening sense of déjà vu. Last year, parts of the country were hit by severe drought. This disaster was followed by months of severe flooding since July, which has affected nearly one million people. We’re working across the country to rehabilitate damaged water pumps and partnering with community hygiene promoters to provide instruction on proper water treatment and storage – a necessity for guarding against cholera and other water-borne diseases.
To the north, Sudan faces its own water scarcity issues following decades of conflict. In Zamzam Camp, a camp for displaced Sudanese in North Darfur, water is at the forefront of residents’ lives. Since the camp was established in 2003, people have come and gone as conditions become safer for them to return home to their villages; some tend their fields and animals in their home communities but reside in the camp where protection is higher. While some 200,000 people still reside inside the camp, there are entire sections that lie empty. We’re actively monitoring water usage inside the camp so that we don’t overproduce or waste clean water in areas of the camp with fewer residents. My smartphone receives data on a daily basis so that I can monitor the amount of water usage per pump. I can access this data on my smartphone from anywhere in the world. The program transmits data on radio waves, not the internet, so we can access this data even in periods of extreme instability, including internet blackouts.
The Philippines has been hit by a number of natural disasters over the past year. In December, Typhoons Tisoy and Ursual made landfall in the islands, leaving entire communities in shambles, with thousands losing their homes and livelihoods. One month later, the Taal Volcano eruption forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes for higher ground; many of whom remain displaced in evacuation centers. In the aftermath of these disasters, our teams distributed water and hygiene kits in affected communities. We’re also looking into solutions to prepare these at-risk communities for the next disaster and to strengthen their resiliency, including equipping schools or other community buildings that serve as temporary evacuation centers with “WASH Blocks”. Equipped with sinks, showers, toilets, these dual-purpose centers can serve immediate emergency needs but can also be used by the communities once the crisis has passed.
What can individuals do to tackle the world’s water crisis?
We all have a role to play in managing the world’s water supply. I recently saw a bumper sticker that I loved that read, “We all live downstream!” Whatever we flush down the toilet or throw down a storm drain, it will eventually end up in the water we drink. It is important to remember that all water was someone else’s wastewater.
This global pandemic requires solidarity not only between countries, but at all levels. We all need to take an active role in protecting the world’s water supply so that we can all have the resources we need to survive this latest crisis, and thrive once it has passed.