© Leigh Daynes/BRC

Boy collecting water in Darfur

Nicholas Rowe works as a water and habitat engineer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on secondment from the British Red Cross. He talks about how he got into this line of work and gives advice for aspiring aid workers.

1. What does your job involve?

The ICRC works in areas affected by war and armed conflicts. For my first mission I spent one year in Darfur in Sudan, where I supervised three teams of Sudanese water and civil engineers. The main activities there were repairing motorised boreholes – from which people get water, often in very remote locations, and training the operators of these boreholes to ensure they had the skills and tools to repair and operate the facilities in future. We also trained people to repair hand pump wells, and constructed or repaired health clinics, veterinary clinics, and a midwifery school.

We only worked in areas where the government water authorities no longer had access because of the conflict. Unfortunately, security concerns meant that we had to carry out many of these activities using contractors rather than doing the work ourselves, but this does mean that the communities can rely on these contractors in the future.

2. What motivated you to choose this line of work?

I used to work as a web programmer, and ended up working for several charities in London. As I learned more about their work, I decided I’d like to take a more active role, but wasn’t sure which field best suited my skills and interests. During a holiday in Tanzania I met someone who did water and sanitation work, which caught my interest as it combines technical and management skills, often in challenging environments. I’d also seen a lot of poverty (and bad plumbing) while travelling, and realised this was a way in which I could try to address some of these issues.

3. What route did you take to your current job?

Once I’d identified the field I wanted to work in, I realised I needed more technical skills, since I had a background in biology and computing. I did a one-year master’s degree in water and sanitation, and then did a six-month internship in Ethiopia, followed by two years with MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres). I worked in five countries including Zimbabwe during the cholera outbreak, Haiti after the earthquake, and Pakistan at the peak of the floods. It was challenging at times, but I learned a lot and decided that this was what I wanted to carry on doing.

4. What was the biggest challenge for you in getting where you are today?

It was difficult financially at times, since I stopped working and studied full-time. It can also be very hard to get your first job, as most organisations want people with experience (for obvious reasons – there can be very little time to find your feet in the middle of a crisis, and people are often too busy to train you or to provide much support). However, while doing my master’s the students ran a charity that sent graduates to work for aid organisations abroad, and I got my internship through this.

Being away from family and friends for long periods is sometimes difficult, and I’ve missed some of my friends’ weddings and other special occasions. It can also be an erratic way to live; sometimes you’ll only have a short (or no) gap between missions, depending on the current needs. At other times there may be less work, so it requires flexibility.

5. What has been your most memorable experience so far?


Each mission is so packed with experiences, that it’s hard to pick just one. However, a recurring theme is the support from local colleagues in each country in which I’ve worked. Without their support your job becomes impossible, and they’re integral to any project’s success – a fact that sometimes gets overlooked.

One nice story from Darfur, where water can be very scarce, was when one village in the far north named three new-born babies after members of the ICRC team who had helped repair their borehole – a real honour. Although, they named one of the babies after the river Nile rather than after me, since my name translates rather rudely into colloquial Arabic…

It’s always good to see that the team’s work has made a difference, and this was vividly highlighted (many times) while working in one of the cholera treatment centres we set up in Zimbabwe. I remember one boy who was brought in unconscious and dying from dehydration, and 30 minutes later was sitting up and talking.

6. What advice would you give to an aspiring aid worker?

Work out which field you want to work in, get more qualifications if necessary, and persevere! Be realistic as well: security and the work environment can be challenging, so make sure you are comfortable with this before embarking on a career in humanitarian aid.

It’s also worth considering which type of organisation would suit you best, and whether you want to focus on fieldwork, management, emergencies, development, etc., to begin with. Reading various aid worker blogs can be a good way to narrow down roles that might interest you.

Read about the Red Cross’ work in Haiti, helping people recover from a devastating earthquake.