Photo: Haidar el Saffar

Humanitarian Engineering in Lebanon

In Australia, we talk about women breaking through the glass ceiling but in countries where Helen Salvestrin works local women are trying to find a way through an iron one.

The environmental engineer has mentored female engineers and professional staff in Haiti, Ethiopia and now Lebanon and says being a role model and capacity building these women is an aspect of her job that she loves.

Helen is a humanitarian engineer and has dedicated most of her professional career to working in countries hit by natural disasters or affected by conflict. She is currently deployed with RedR Australia and helping Syrian refugees, in Lebanon, access clean water and sanitation and appropriate solid waste disposal.

 More than a million Syrians have sought protection in Lebanon and the refugees now make up 25% of Lebanon’s population.

 “Social cohesion is critical as the settlements and presence of the refugees can cause tension in the communities where they are present. One of the major issues we are trying to address at the moment is the uncontrolled and inappropriate disposal of sewage and solid waste and the competition for scarce water resources,” Helen said.

Helen laughs as she explains how she became an accidental engineer, a decision that changed the course of her life. It was missing out on a university place in physiotherapy that led her to an engineering degree.

 “I studied environmental engineering which was a bit out of the ordinary for a girl from Griffith and I was the first person in my family to go to university,” she said.

After graduating, Helen joined Sydney Water, a popular incubator for water and sanitation experts on RedR’s humanitarian roster.

“My role is still focused on the operations and maintenance of communal assets just as it was at Sydney Water but there is less technology, less local expertise and the money to operate and maintain them is far less!” she explained from her office in Lebanon.

There are no designated camps for refugees in Lebanon like there are in Jordan. A significant proportion of the refugees are living in informal settlements that range from one or two to 150 tents or in privately rented apartments. RedR Australia has deployed Helen to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and she helps them set up emergency response water and sanitation infrastructure and more self-sustaining systems as part of stabilisation efforts.

 “In an emergency response you set up a tank and truck in water and truck out waste but with stabilisation activities you want sustainable water sources close to the site and you set up a network so refugees can operate and maintain the system themselves.”

Helen says humanitarian work is extremely rewarding and offers different challenges to those she experienced in Australia.

“Install a water network in a camp in Lebanon and you have friends for life. What can be more rewarding than giving life-saving water to people?” she asked?

“My parents were initially concerned when I started working abroad. They wanted me to stay and help people in Australia because they wanted me to be safe. I came back and worked with indigenous communities in central Australia for a while but returned to the humanitarian world. Now, they are ridiculously proud of course but always worried about my security and emotional and mental wellbeing,” she said adding that she often works in remote locations and insecure environments.

“I find the humanitarian work very rewarding but I also enjoy working with local staff and the opportunity I have to empower Lebanese engineers and women engineers in general which I’ve done in Ethiopia, Lebanon and Haiti.”

“Australians talk about the glass ceiling but compared to these other countries we’re doing fantastically!” she said.