International Philanthropy Award 2021

Developing the best health protection in emergency response

On April 3 last year, the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office issued an alert that a tropical cyclone was heading for two of its provinces. When Cyclone Harold hit two days later, seven islands were struck by winds gusting above 275kmph and rainfall ranging from 250-450mm. A third of the nation’s population was immediately affected, but the devastation across the area was significant and lasting: 80 per cent of the nation was suddenly homeless.

After such devastation, what’s the best way to develop a sanitation and hygiene response? There are 83 islands across Vanuatu: the need for a solution is urgent.

Protecting human health is a priority. So how do you reconcile the short term need with the longer-term development goals? And by the way, you have to work this out with an international pandemic closing the country’s borders.

These were the unique challenges confronting Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) in the aftermath of Cyclone Harold. Vanuatu is the world’s most disaster-prone nation, but there was no plan or guidelines for sanitation and hygiene emergency response. EWB realised it needed help to find a solution and turned to one of its partners, engineering firm Arup Australasia, to help work with the Vanuatu Ministry of Health.

The priority became developing a set of hygiene and sanitation guidelines that could foster local capacity within Vanuatu. There were globally recognised standards, but they needed to be combined with local knowledge. A potential bonus was being able to increase the baseline sanitation level of some parts of the nation.

The foundation document became WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Guidelines: and to succeed they had to be culturally and environmentally appropriate; the infrastructure solutions had to be easy to build from locally sourced labour and materials; it needed to include menstrual hygiene management considerations; and had to be able to be implemented with the full consideration of the risks and requirements around the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arup’s team, back in Melbourne, worked virtually with the Ministry of Health and locals to help by assessing pre-existing strategies and responses, drafting emergency guidelines, and developing design for emergency sanitation units. It’s been a complicated process, but one rich with opportunities.

 Arup Australasia Water Leader, Daniel Lambert explains: “I think it’s been an opportunity to really engage with the community and understand, to then go on a journey [about] the different approaches to responding.’’

“Part of the challenge around emergency response raising awareness, getting people’s buy-in, helping them to understand the impacts and then having a plan in place which is clear and they’re supportive of. Hopefully if we go down a similar path, we don’t have to do it remotely next time, but I think the process of how the guidelines were developed and how the nuances of engaging with the community and working together, you get more buy-in and you get more effective uptake of new guidelines,’’ he says. “You can write the world’s best guidelines but if people aren’t taken on the journey, they don’t understand them or they don’t feel that they’ve been listened to and valued, it won’t be the world’s best guidelines.’’

Vanuatu Country Manager for EWB Australia and EWB New Zealand Stephanie Hamel describes the time spent in building long-term relationships with those in Vanuatu.

“You think it can be done in six months and then you add another year after that,’’ Stephanie says. “This is the most prone country to natural disasters, so it’s not like a continuous development cycle: it’s very much interrupted and stakeholders change a lot …it’s very dynamic, so you get different inputs…[there’s] a lot of work and resourcing [needed].’’

Arup engineer Sian Herrick saw how the cyclone-struck nation then closed its borders to the pandemic, potentially increasing the difficulties of a co-ordinated emergency response.

“My reading on it was there was a lot of positives - that things could be done without having a lot of players come in from abroad, but at the same time it was very resource-constrained, and it was a new way of doing things and I think it did highlight the gaps in terms of having a co-ordinated response,’’ Sian says.

There is, as Sian explains, a “boom and bust cycle’’ with a nation so often having to deal with natural disasters. There is little time and few resources to prepare for another disaster, so discussions about how best to plan were different.

“We initially went in to have an open input into how we should run the emergency response and what we’ve learned is that people need to see an initial response first that they can critique and work with,’’ Sian says. “And that’s how we’ve been able to get more engagement, particularly when everyone has priorities of dealing with emergencies right in front of them.’’

In practical terms, the supply chain of materials required to build the sanitation and hygiene infrastructure has been localised to the Pacific and there is a willingness and determination within Vanuatu to manufacture locally what they need.

The adoption of the guidelines means that Vanuatu government agencies will be able to respond to another emergency in a timely way, with culturally, environmentally appropriate sustainable, easy-to-use, COVID-safe toilets that will significantly reduce the incidence of illness. And the guidelines themselves have been integral to local discussions about gender equality and inclusion.

“It’s not just about the draft guidelines: it’s all about the thinking, [and] the work that’s gone into people reflecting on how to provide a more effective emergency response,’’ Sian says. “Stepping back and doing this as a project has allowed us all to think about things that might get overlooked, such as inclusion, accessibility, menstrual hygiene for women. Going back to those principles about how do we have a more inclusive emergency response, I think this process [has] allowed.’’

The 10-year partnership with EWB Australia is celebrated by both – EWB CEO Eleanor Loudon says Arup has a deep commitment to her organisation’s vision and approach. It supports EWB’s strategic goals in “bespoke and innovative ways.’’

Daniel maintains that EWB’s approach in developing countries makes it a great partner.

“It’s [EWB’s commitment to] the culture, the context and building capacity as opposed to going in and trying to deliver solutions and not building the capability - capacity, skills, and getting the buy-in and engagement of the local community,’’ Daniel says. “And they’re really looking to partners like Arup who can bring technical skills to complement and support them on the journey. A genuine partnership where we complement each other.’’

For this project in particular, Stephanie can see how important the draft guidelines are for Vanuatu. “We have a good draft guideline. It’s national – 300,000 people – the fact that all the engagement, draft developed over almost 12 months, for me that’s the biggest impact,’’ Stephanie says. “We’re talking about emergency response, but it’s really about preparedness. And I think the impact is there…a bit more confidence from everyone that we’ve had the conversation for the response to happen differently.’’

For Vanuatu, the value of these guidelines can’t be understated because of the impact climate change already has – and will continue to have - on the islands.

“The selection panel looked for the hallmarks of genuine partnership between donor and doer and we certainly found it in this partnership,” says Anna Demant, Chair, International Philanthropy Award selection panel at the 2021 Australian Philanthropy Awards.

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