WASH is about health, human rights and dignity – a conversation with Andreas Schiffer

The Humanitarian Shelter & Settlements workshop is an important component of our Master’s program. The course explores how international agencies respond to displacement crisis for sudden natural disasters and draws upon a team of experts in the field that work for International Relief Institutions. One of the most popular parts of the workshop is the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) course on sanitation in humanitarian crises by guest professor Andreas Schiffer of FLASH, who has been a highly valued and beloved collaborator of our program for seven years. We spoke to him about the basics of WASH, the importance of hygiene and sanitation for architecture and planning disciplines, and how the current pandemic crisis should make us all aware of the basic human right that is access to safe water.

You have worked as a consultant and trainer in the field of WASH for many years and in many countries. Can you please tell us a little bit about your career path so far, why you chose your current field and how you started your own training initiative?

I am a carpenter by trade. I used to fabricate furniture and work in construction. In that sense, I’d consider myself self-educated in the field of WASH and logistics, as it was really my practical experience in the field that helped me acquire these skills.

My first travels overseas took me to Nicaragua, which at that time was an exciting place to be, and where I went out of a political motivation of solidarity. Later on, I went to the Sahara where I worked in the refugee camps, and to Kurdistan and Iraq during the first Gulf War. Then I joined Médicos sin Fronteras and worked with them over 9 years in many different countries. Unlike today, when everyone has to be a specialist, they were looking for professionals with a holistic knowledge that were able do a little bit of everything. That included fleet management and the maintenance of vehicles, setting up the generators and the radio for communication, and also construction skills. After that, I went on to work with Intermon Oxfam and Acción contra el Hambre.

Already when I was with MSF, I started concentrating on the topic of WASH. I enrolled in some courses and decided to specialise in that area, but the practical experience in the field is really the most important education. Over the years I realised that there was a high demand for further education in this area, but very few training courses available, especially in Spain. Therefore, we founded our education initative FLASH (Formación en Logística, Agua, Saneamiento e Higiene), where we offer logistics, water, sanitation and hygiene courses for universities and NGOs.

Hands-on exercises during the WASH course. Photo: Lorenza Esquinca.

Your WASH course for sanitation in humanitarian crises is part of our Humanitarian Shelters & Settlements Workshop and you have been collaborating with our Master’s program for seven years now. Why is the WASH workshop such an important part of the curriculum of humanitarian architecture education?

Surprisingly, WASH is a relatively unfamiliar topic to most architecture students and absent in many architecture schools. Many students do not tend to think about water, sanitation and basic infrastructure and what is going on under the surface. Often it is added only after the design process. But we cannot lose sight of the basic functions of a building. At the end, WASH has one main objective – health. This is the motivation behind everything we do. In 2002, the United Nations under Kofi Annan adopted water as a human right. What we should never forget is that by ensuring access to safe water we are providing a basic human right. It is important to emphasise the ideas behind WASH – health, human rights and dignity. Still, millions of people do not have access to clean water. Where and how do they live? As the global urbanisation is progressing rapidly, WASH has become an important factor in city planning and housing as it has an enormous impact on the quality of housing. This clear connection to architecture is what we try to demonstrate to the students in our workshop.

Hands-on exercises during the WASH course. Photo: Prachi Metawala

What has been your experience with our students over the years and their interest in the topic of WASH?

First of all, the special thing about this program is the diversity of students that come from all parts of the world. The experiences from their home countries that they share with us become part of the education and we all learn from this.

I have also noticed that many students are specifically interested in ecological and sustainable solutions to sanitation and the required infrastructure. There is certainly a movement for more sustainable approaches in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which poses a challenge in rapidly growing urbanisations. Currently, some kind of ‘flush and forget’ attitude is still prevalent in many large cities, where we waste immense amounts of waters to transport sewage that usually ends up in the sea or a river. And we definitely need to find better answers. Overall, we see progress in this area and a lot of research being undertaken. Dry sanitation or vegetation-based natural water treatments are some of the alternatives, though both have proven to be difficult in urban areas. Another factor that is not explored sufficiently is rainwater harvesting – an alternative to the widespread overexploitation of underground water reservoirs. We have to realise that everything is connected, by contaminating potable water and turning it into sewage or wasting it elsewhere, we are taking away our clean water sources.

Another important part of WASH that we teach in the workshop is water treatment in emergencies. In an emergency situation, the only available water source is usually surface water from lakes or rivers. This means it has been exposed to potential contamination and needs to be filtered in two steps – sedimentation to deposit any material in suspension to the bottom of the water supply, and disinfection (thermal, chemical etc).

An example of sanitation and contamination issues that Andreas Schiffer’s WASH students encountered at a boarding school in Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders Hong Kong Branch

Hygiene, sanitation and access to clean water has become an urgent topic in the current pandemic crisis. What are your insights as an expert, who has worked in many countries in the Global South?

For anyone working in this field, the current developments are not surprising. We have received many questions, both internationally and from within Spain, how to deal with the hygienic issues around COVID-19 and how to disinfect hospitals. But many of the things now recommended – washing your hands frequently or other precautions and hygiene habits around the home – we have been advocating for a long time. In this respect, COVID-19 has not changed our views or observations around hygiene and sanitation. Interestingly, in Latin America, for example, reported cases of diarrhea have diminished since the lockdown started. But there is still a lot to learn about this virus and we have to remain vigilant.

Of course, we also have to realise that for people living in informal settlements, basic hygiene and social distancing is not always feasible. Hopefully through this crisis, we will all become aware of the conditions many people around the world live in.

In recent years, we have been experiencing an increase in young architects and planning professionals that – like our students – want to work in the humanitarian field. What would you recommend them?

Most of all, before you start designing a building, think about the essential infrastructure – where does the water come from and where does it go? It might sound very basic, but we urgently have to change our habits around water use. Make sure you include the communities in the design process and the implementation. Take your time to get to know the people, their culture, customs and beliefs. I would also highly recommend our students to do more research to advance the field and find alternative and sustainable solutions. And last but not least, study the international standards and norms, and make sure you know how to apply them.

 

Feature Image: Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project in Khan Village, Laos. Asian Development Bank via Flickr, Creative Commons Licensed.

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