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Engineer and aid worker Stuart Bryan with a Somali Red Cross worker. Photo: IFRC

 

By Sarah Lansdown, The Advocate

As floods have wreaked havoc from Lismore to Launceston, families on the other side of the world are praying for rain.

The United Nations has declared the current food crisis in East Africa to be the worst humanitarian situation since 1945.

Former Burnie resident Stuart Bryan has seen it first hand in a recent stint in Somalia as an engineer working with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“I’ve been to a few disaster responses and I haven’t seen anything of this scale and this challenging,” he says.

Stuart has worked on water and sanitation projects in some difficult environments, including floods in Malaysia and Fiji and the 2015 Nepal earthquake, but nothing prepared him for this. “The scale of the drought is immense,” he says. “The failed late rains means there’s extreme water scarcity. And the lateness of the rains means there’s definitely a risk of major crop failure.”

Stuart spent a month in the western part of the country, near the Gulf of Aden known as Somaliland. His mission was to analyse issues and evaluate Red Cross’ response. “We were looking at providing clean water to the health clinics, some of which are run by the Red Cross,” he says.

“And we were also looking at the outbreak of cholera which is happening in the Horn of Africa and how we can support people at a family level who are at risk of cholera using hygiene kits, household water treatment and basic sanitation measures.”

Somalis gather water any way they can. Communities drill deep bores 200m to 400m underground to access groundwater. Shallow wells are dug in the mountains and dams are built to collect surface water. Trucking in water is also common, where water trucks come periodically to refill water reservoirs called berkads. But these methods do not always provide safe and reliable sources for drinking water.

“One of the issues with the drought is you’ve got no rain supply and the water table from the groundwater could fall below the bore level,” Stuart says. “With some of the bore water, salinity is an issue so it’s quite salty. But they drink it anyway because there’s no other alternative.”

Knowledge about hygiene and keeping water storage areas clean is poor in Somalia.

“The one [berkad] we saw, the water was pretty much dry but there was just a really thick layer of mud in the bottom so there was no sense that that was an issue and no sense of cleaning it out before the next water truck came. And you could see tadpole and red baby worms in there.”

Stuart became interested in community development while studying a double degree in civil engineering and arts at the University of Melbourne. “It was probably doing the arts subjects that got me interested and it actually worked out with the engineering studies that I could do this sort of work.”

He saw the impact of water engineering projects on the improved health of communities and the time it saved residents from collecting water.

Stuart Bryan lives between Burnie, Hobart and Suva, Fiji. Working for Red Cross can lead to a life of extremes: working without much rest and then hoping the strategy is working from afar.

Donate to support Red Cross programs in Australia and overseas: redcross.org.au/eastafrica