JOHN WAIN describes his work in post-disaster reconstruction around the world.
In the late 1980s, when the Irish construction industry was in recession, Dublin quantity surveying (QS) firm Mulcahy MacDonagh and Partners had a mantra: ‘have job will travel’. As a young graduate QS from Bolton Street’s part-time programme, it didn’t take much to convince me to take up the London challenge. It was an opportunity to get relevant experience for finalising my TPC diary and travelling abroad.
London taught me to be versatile and constantly open to change, as the work there ranged from being sub-contracted to larger QS firms such as G+T, working on major projects such as the Broadgate development, to managing small scale QS work and assisting in establishing a UK office.
A life-changing decision
After gaining Chartered QS status, and spending a particularly arduous few months deep in a London basement checking a mountain of day works, I decide to take up a QS opportunity in Sydney. It was while travelling back from Australia through Asia that I was first exposed to communities living in extreme poverty. Perhaps this journey awakened a humanitarian conscience in me, because on returning to Dublin I decided to try and get work in the development sector. After numerous unsuccessful applications to various agencies, GOAL offered me my first opportunity. My inaugural mission was to help the Cluny Sisters in Kalimpong in north-west Bengal, India, to build a primary school for disadvantaged children utilising Irish Aid funds. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a career as an aid worker that has taken me across the world, dealing with and responding to some of the world’s
most destructive and devastating natural and man-made disasters. These have included famine in the blistering heat of South Sudan, the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in Sri Lanka, earthquakes in Indonesia and Haiti and, more recently, responding to protracted situations in Africa and the Middle East.
A massive industry
Relief and development work, though humanitarian in nature, is a massive industry. I have been privileged to work with some fledgling, grass roots agencies such as the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation in India and Haven in Haiti. I have experienced working with established results-focused NGOs such as GOAL and large international organisations. The further you move up the organisational ladder, the more procedurally focused and regulated the industry becomes. Donors and governments rightly insist on accountability; humanitarian organisations must act professionally and be results focused. Relief and development interventions should be integrated, sustainable and impact focused. They should never replace or undermine appropriate government or community social systems.
The post-disaster build environment landscape is dominated by architects and civil engineers. Ever since the famous Monty Python bookshop sketch reference to ‘Ethel the Aardvark goes Quantity Surveying’, I have become accustomed to explaining exactly what it is we do, and justifying our presence as appropriately qualified professionals working in the post-disaster context.
The response to disasters can be represented in phases as outlined in Figure 1. The skills of the QS are relevant across all phases of the cycle from preparedness through to the physical reconstruction and handover activities. The table offers a brief summary of the activities and appropriate skill set that the QS brings to the post-disaster reconstruction process. The primary skills and professional experience gained as a Chartered QS proved invaluable as my post-disaster reconstruction career developed. In the aftermath of the St Stephen’s Day tsunami of 2004, I was GOAL’s country director in Sri Lanka, working with a team of skilled construction professionals from Ireland and elsewhere. This young, dedicated and committed team completed a $22.5 million programme in two and a half years, the biggest single reconstruction programme in the organisation’s history. After this, I was
engaged as senior construction manager with the International Federation of The Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Sri Lanka, where I had responsibility for managing the implementation of health infrastructure development and shelter reconstruction programmes with a total budget of approximately US$80m. This required procurement of consultancy and contracting services through established procedures in co-ordination with the national Sri Lankan Red Cross Society, risk management, contract management, co-ordination with relevant Government of Sri Lanka authorities, management of defects liability periods, handover and provision of the certificate of conformity.
The humanitarian relief and development industry is becoming more specialised, and it’s no longer adequate to rely on a primary degree to progress. Recognising this, I completed a Masters in post-disaster mitigation and reconstruction (Salford University, distance learning programme). The MSc has given me the right combination of appropriate post-disaster reconstruction knowledge to complement my PQS skills and hard-earned field experience.
Urbanisation is one of the biggest challenges facing post-disaster built environment specialists, as for the first time in history half the world’s population live in the urban environment. It’s often said that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. The skills of built environment professionals are increasingly in demand to ensure that we build back better post disaster. This is particularly relevant in underdeveloped cities where post-disaster death rates are significantly higher once disaster strikes. This can be seen if we contrast Japan and Haiti’s recent disasters, where developed building codes and regulations in the former accounted for significantly fewer casualties. The skills of the QS are also imperative, as reconstruction costs account for the major proportion of total recovery budgets. The urban challenge is also hugely relevant as the response to the recent Syrian crisis develops. Over 70% of the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries are displaced in an urban setting.
This presents numerous challenges for responding agencies such as the effects on host communities, rental market distortion, lack of
available land for shelter, strain on services and numerous other socio-economic issues.
A rewarding choice
I always thought that one day I would get tired of the transitional nature of post-disaster development work; life ‘on the road’ can take its toll. It entails long stints of time apart from home and family, and doesn’t lend itself to a stable existence. Since 1997, we have set up home no fewer than seven times across five different countries. The Irish construction industry is back in the doldrums and return at this point doesn’t appear to be an option. Postdisaster reconstruction continues to present me with challenges,
opportunities and the potential for continuation of specialised professional development. I am currently engaged with a large international organisation supporting emergency shelter operations. I am learning new skills daily such as GIS mapping, adaptation of
mobile phone technology for applications and assessments, and enhancing my shelter and settlement knowledge. The industry is constantly changing, and it’s important to keep pace with technology and other developments. I am privileged to have carved out a career as a QS in the post-disaster reconstruction context. It’s a path less travelled; however, it’s exciting, rewarding, inspiring and seldom humdrum.
John F. Wain MSc BSc Dip Con Econ
John has worked in post-disaster reconstruction
around the world for a number of years.