An Engineer Among Doctors

Roy Hunt, P.Eng., spent nine months with Médecin Sans Frontières in Africa’s war-haggard Sierra Leone. And the young water and sanitation expert from Calgary hasn’t kicked the disaster relief bug just yet, even though his career has resumed on his home turf.

Among the Villagers
Roy Hunt, P.Eng., poses with villagers in Sierra Leone, during a nine-month stint helping improve conditions in the aftermath of the African country’s devastating civil war.

Freelance Writer

When Roy Hunt, P.Eng., signed on with Médecin Sans Frontières in 2001, all he knew about Sierra Leone was its location on a map and its recent emergence from a bloody, 10-year civil war. He’d be learning more.

In fact in a few blinks he was spending nine months as a water and sanitation specialist, helping the ravaged West African country get back on its feet.
At an age when most young Canadian engineers are intent on building a career, the 25-year-old Mr. Hunt put it all on hold to do a humanitarian stint with MSF – called Doctors Without Borders in English – in an unstable country with none of the resources engineers here take for granted. And he’s glad he did.

“It was a fantastic experience,” says Mr. Hunt, who returned to Canada in 2003 and now works as a water and wastewater engineer for Calgary’s Komex International Ltd. “It added some value to my profession, but far more importantly it allowed me to see what can be accomplished with a small investment in water and sanitation in a country where the bottom has fallen out.”

This interest in humanitarian issues was instilled by his parents and his rural Alberta upbringing in Sundre. Those feelings were reinforced by subsequent travel in developing nations and by international work as a young engineer with Waterworks Technologies of Calgary.

The final impetus came in 1999-2000 when, as a Waterworks project manager, he worked on the design, construction and commissioning of two wastewater treatments plants in post-war Kosovo. “It was my first exposure to the disaster-relief concept, and I had a strong urge to become more involved in international humanitarian aid,” he says.

Not long after, Mr. Hunt moved to Vancouver to join BCA-Clearwater Group as an environmental project engineer. Though the work was stimulating – involving water and wastewater treatment systems throughout Canada and the United States – he was soon applying for overseas aid work. Médecin Sans Frontières called and, following an intensive training period in the Netherlands, he was bound for Sierra Leone.

Catching the Curveballs
As the only non-medical member of a five-person team sent to Sierra Leone’s Tonkolili District, he was in charge of logistics, finances and communications with local chiefs. That meant dealing with everything from hiring and paying 150 local staff to coordinating the shipping of two large truckloads of medical supplies a month to satellite clinics.

His other priority was rebuilding a decimated 200-bed hospital so doctors could perform surgeries and provide other critical care. Wards had to be rehabilitated, beds built, rainwater catchment and wastewater systems established, lighting and air conditioning installed, and pit latrines built. Six destroyed satellite clinics had to be restored to service.

“There was a lot of problem solving, where my project management experience proved very useful,” he says. “I was probably dealing with 30 to 40 requests a day. There were always curveballs being thrown at you, like the outbreak of bloody diarrhea in a refugee camp or a bed bug infestation or fixing a broken generator.”

Intimidated at first by the sight of armed rebels on the streets, he grew to feel safe on the compound where the aid team lived. Travelling to the satellite clinics was less secure and could only be done as a day trip – six hours each way on bad roads, with some precarious bridge crossings.

Surgical Commitment
Because of the humanitarian organization’s critical care mandate, Mr. Hunt could not undertake small, extraneous engineering projects such as restoring fresh water delivery to nearby villages. But any such frustrations, or the occasional feelings of being overwhelmed, were put in perspective by working alongside doctors who performed three or four major surgeries a day.

“It was really inspiring to see their commitment and the energy they needed every day,” he says. “One of the big things that keeps you going is getting to know the people in the community and those who come into the hospital.

“If you’re expecting to make a difference that’s more than a drop in the bucket, it disappears quite quickly when you see the huge scale of difficulties and obstacles these people face. In the end, what you take away with you are the relationships you form, knowing you did your best and seeing a lot of people who are alive because we were there.”

The experiences have served him well at home. Following his overseas assignment, Mr. Hunt was hired by Calgary-based Associated Engineering to work on area wastewater treatment projects.

He then joined Komex, where he has combined his engineering expertise and international interests by working on a wastewater treatment plant and effluent re-use system for a rural development project in Jordan.

Interest Lives On
Mr. Hunt hasn’t abandoned his interest in disaster relief work. He is still involved with MSF locally and has signed up with the Canadian chapter of Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief, hoping to do another overseas stint in the not-too-distant future.

And he’s maintained a personal, long-term link with Sierra Leone – by marrying a local woman, who recently joined him in Calgary.

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