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Together we come up with … the solution that will improve access to water and sanitation and the overall health of people in that community.

Celeste

What does a tap mean?

Special guests:

Celeste Swain, Australian aid worker

Host:

Susan Cullinan, Australian Red Cross

Just once, try this: Walk a kilometre downhill, fill three buckets with water and carry them back home. Then you’ll have the faintest sense of what clean water means to millions of mothers and their children around the world. Celeste Swain talks about the things that change once people get access to water:  from everyday things like grabbing a glass of water, to life-changing things like the opportunity to go to school or get a job. 

Susan
Welcome to today’s episode of “How Aid Works” Red Cross Podcast series features a behind-the-scenes look at the minds of international aid workers.  I’m Susan Cullinan and today we’re lucky enough to have with us Celeste Swain who’s joining us by Skype from Timor-Leste. Celeste is an Australian Engineer and Water and Sanitation delegate and she is going to talk us about the things that change in people’s lives once they have access to water. Celeste, welcome.
 
Celeste

Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Susan
Celeste, you’re working with Timor-Leste Red Cross in villages in pretty remote parts of the country to help people get safe, clean water. Can you paint a bit of a picture of the sorts of conditions they’re living in?

Celeste
Sure, so access to communities is sometimes, well mostly a little bit challenging so sometimes there’s a road but it’s in a bit of a state of disrepair or it might not have really been formalised, ever, so never really officially constructed just a collection of people over time might have you know cleared the vegetation away and tried to put some gravel down to make it a bit harder during the rainy season but yeah sometimes there’s roads that are a bit bumpy and massive potholes. Other times there’s no roads so you can drive to a certain point but then you have to walk or you need to get a boat or maybe you need to take, they have carabaos which are like water buffaloes, yeah it just depends. 

And then once you arrive in a community yeah houses are smallish, usually with sort of outdoor kitchens and if the community has toilets they’ll be outside as well. So they’re made, the houses are made of sort of locally available materials like you know for example bamboo and other kinds of timbers yeah or grasses that you can find around. Occasionally you might find one that’s got some tiles on the floor but mostly you’ve got compacted earth floors. Yeah again occasionally you might come across some concrete sort of blocks in the way that we might use bricks but again in other cases they’re not around. So yeah it really depends, and again comes back to that access that I was taking about with the roads so if you’ve got a road to the community your houses are going to look a bit more established than if you don’t have a road to your community.

Susan
So for those houses that don’t have water, tell us a little bit about how they function, how people go about their daily lives. The sorts of things that we obviously take very much granted in the west?

Celeste
No-one has water connected to their house and in situations where there’s no water system in the community there’ll be a stream or a river a varying  distance away where people collect water and also probably do their laundry. At other times in other communities, there  might be an existing water system that might have been built some years ago before Timor-Leste was an independent country so maybe during the Indonesian occupation for example so they might be functional up to a certain point so people might be hiking from their house to that point at which that system is still functioning or they might have disconnected that system from the source and so people might be walking to the source directly because the system is no longer functional.

Susan
So in the west people probably have no idea about how life would be like without having to turn on a tap and have clean water coming out or push a button and water flushes. So just elaborate a little bit on how it might limit the lives of a person who can live in terms of everything from education to employment if you don’t have that basic?

Celeste
Yes sure so I guess in Australia everything we do before and after employment to sort of make ourselves you know get to work or get to school, let’s just call that sort of ‘life admin.’ And basically so every life admin task that we do in Australia that doesn’t take very much time, just takes a lot more time in these communities. So you know in the morning in Australia you wake up you walk over to your tap in the kitchen you pour yourself a glass of water and you drink it. In these communities someone would probably have had to walk to one of those streams or rivers or water collection points, collected a bunch of water, taken it back to their house and then if they want to drink it then they’re going to need to light a fire, boil that water, then let it cool and then they can drink it. So that’s before the work that we do when they don’t have a drinking water source. 

Similarly you know in Australia if you want to do your washing like your laundry you know you walk to your laundry  and you turn your washing machine on with the water that comes out of that’s connected to your house. So in these kind of communities they don’t have that so again they’ll take their laundry in a big bucket or basket and take it to the creek or stream and probably do it there and then they’ll cart it back to where they live and then they’ll hang it out. So yes everything just takes more time.

Susan
And in the West people don’t even think about toilets that they use, how many times a day. But it’s an entirely different proposition when there’s no running water.

Celeste
Yes exactly in a community that doesn’t have toilets well then people will be going to the toilet in the stream or near the river or openly defecating which causes all bunch of other issues regarding health but even in communities where they might have toilets, they still need to collect the water to flush those toilets and to wash their hands after they’ve been to the toilet and also to wash themselves so they don’t get skin diseases.

Susan
And so if your life revolves around ‘life admin’ as you say, it takes so much longer to do these basic life admin tasks, that’s going to limit your other options in life.

Celeste
Yeah I mean not only your time but also I guess how you are in terms of energy levels so you know we all know that if we’re not feeling well it’s very difficult to sort of get on with the things that we think we’re supposed to be doing. If it’s difficult to collect water you tend to not you know have as much as you maybe need, and therefore you have to prioritise certain tasks over others so you’re potentially not washing yourself as much as you might need to be or maybe you’re not washing your hands as much as you should before you make your food or after you go to the toilet.  But it’s also because when something’s difficult and we tend to you know do less of it I suppose, because it’s difficult so that causes other issues.

Susan
Not to mention education and employment?

Celeste
Yes exactly you can’t go to school or work if you’re sick or if you don’t have time.

Susan
So for you, what’s involved in creating these water systems?

Celeste
If it’s a case of an existing system in need of significant repair then we would discuss with the community and you know come to an agreement that that’s what we would do. If it’s an existing system that they are requesting an extension of because they have had some population growth in their community then we might look at doing that. Sometimes the community has identified a new source of water because the other sources may have been depleted or they’d be sharing with a community nearby and because of population growth in that community the agreement that they had is now sort of a little bit more contentious, so they’ve identified a new source and in that case then we’ll sort of start from scratch I guess and build a new system from that new source.

Susan
And because of electricity is obviously in short supply you they’re generally speaking gravity-fed systems?

Celeste
Yeah.

Susan
So can you describe what a typical one looks like that you create with the local people?  

Celeste
Yeah sure so usually there’s what we call a spring which is where water comes out of the ground, usually at the base of a mountain so we dig that back to the rock and then we build a protection system which is sort of like a I guess we create a I guess a concrete tank around that area that means that no outside contamination from you know animals or people or plants can get into that water so basically when it’s coming out of the ground clean it stays clean. And then we transfer that down to the community and depending on the height difference between that location where the water’s coming out of the ground and where the community is, it’ll be through a combination of tanks and pipes and then at the end we’ll have some tap stands around the community so you know we don’t do direct connections to people’s houses, we put tanks and tap stands in the community and then the community manages those. As well as the whole water system actually.

Susan
It’s all done by hand? All the construction, all the digging, all the carting of the gear?

Celeste
Yeah so we have some tools but yes they’re hand tools and it’s all done in complete partnership between the Timorese Red Cross, technical staff and volunteers from the community in which the water system is to benefit so I guess, there’s you know it’s basically called, volunteer labour or you know sometimes referred to as “sweat equity”. People literally have to carry bags of sand and gravel from the last point to which we can deliver it with a vehicle until that location where the water’s coming out of the ground so that can be hours of carting, or days well not days as in one trip but you know still take multiple days of multiple people from that community moving that sand and gravel, and cement to wherever we drop it off to where we need to build it.  

Susan
And another aspect that takes time is the consultation. And there are a lot of cultural considerations and spiritual considerations about the location of this material, of this resource?

Celeste
Timor-Leste culture around water sources and for example if a community agrees that you know we together can use this source, there’s a number of cultural ceremonies that occur before we can break ground near that source which I am not really privy to the exact details of or don’t have a complete understanding but it seems a bit like from the outside perspective it seems a bit like an offering and a spiritual process that needs to be undertaking before we can commence that work so Red Cross works is in full consultation with communities over a period of time. So if they are agreeing that we can you know touch a source yeah there’s a number of spiritual and ritual processes that the community undertakes in order for us to come in with the technical side as in I guess the science and the community comes at it from the spiritual angle.

Susan
And you’ve seen plenty of aid projects where water and sanitations systems have been built and they just don’t work so can you tell us a little bit about what  the problem’s been there?

Celeste
Well there’s quite a few examples of the purchased water filtration units being installed and like anything, if you don’t give consideration to sort of the maintenance and operational regimes, that are required on those sort of units, they sort of quite quickly become non functional either because the community doesn’t understand how to maintain them, can’t afford to maintain them or doesn’t have time to maintain them because you know they’re trying to feed their families, by harvesting crops etc so it’s yeah there’s a number of water filtrations units I’ve seen around not in Timor-Leste but in other locations that are sort of sitting there doing nothing. 

Other instances are where you meet a lot of non-functional toilets and for varying degrees like maybe the toilet was built but no-one thought about where the water was going to come from. So they’ve become non-functional because there wasn’t water to flush them. Other times, or clean them to be honest, so you’ve got odour issues and then people don’t want to  use them because it’s not a good, it’s not a  nice experience. Other times water storage tanks, are sort of paid for and delivered to communities by external agencies, but the from the outside anyway it would look like there wasn’t much consultation with the community about whether they wanted or needed that tank and even where in the community it should go or how large it should be or what it should be connected to or how the community might want to use it. I mean these are examples that I see around not Red Cross projects because I guess obviously if we see a problem on a Red Cross project I you know discuss with the team how we can get around it whereas these others ones I’m looking from the outside in.

Susan
So Red Cross is very different I think in the way it operates in Timor-Leste and around the world, but particularly you can talk I suppose about the structure in Timor-Leste where Red Cross is very much embedded into the community?

Celeste
Red Cross is auxiliary to the government so they have what we call a branch office in each of the districts so that’s sort of the equivalent of a State in Australia so in Timor there’s thirteen districts. And then within that branch they’ll have some staff and also some volunteers and then in every community that is identified that we’re going to a project in or they’re going to do a project in, there’s volunteers from the community also in addition to the labour or volunteer for labour or ‘sweat labour’ or ‘sweat contribution’ that I spoke about earlier on when were talking about constructions so. You’ve sort of got identified volunteers in the community who I guess are in charge of rallying the community together in alliance with the Timorese Red Cross staff. 

Because there’s a permanent office in every district it’s Timorese Red Cross you know it’s not a foreign agency there’s a long term or there’s a permanent presence and so these- the relationships with these communities there’s no ending you know I mean even if the project finishes and projects go over a period of you know two to five years depending so, in the communities we don’t actually just build water systems, you would never build a water system and not do a hygiene promotion  activity and water education activities around you know how to use the water and what the benefits of having water are and similarly for sanitation and actually it’s sort of the two activities run concurrently and one in a way builds demand for the other so you need education around what you would use water for and how you can use it to improve your health probably before you want a water system.

Susan
So it must be on a personal level again I suppose it must be very nice for you to be a part of an organisation that’s not going anywhere it’s very much part, it has a lot of history in the country and is not going anywhere?

Celeste
It’s beautiful and it’s also I would say one of the only ways to do it. I can definitely not speak- I’m trying to speak Tetun which is sort of national language here in Timor but when you go to some of these communities in the districts you know they speak dialects more than they speak Tetun and so yeah my broken Tetun isn’t going to anywhere so I would argue that I don’t actually know how you would do some of the work that we do in  partnership with these communities if we didn’t have the structure that we have, you know with the volunteers from that community. Just so I don’t want to say 50/50 because that sort of puts a number on things, but you know it’s just such what feels like an even contribution you know like you know the Timorese Red Cross provides the you know the materials and the technical advice and support around how to do something but then the community provides all the labour and all of the I guess how we do – or the making it happen.

Susan
Yes that’s lovely. I get a really good picture of how completely aligned the work is with what people really want and are committed to delivering themselves. So again on a personal level, there must be challenges but it must also be some really lovely things that happen to you so can you talk about what the nicest things are about your work?

Celeste
Yes there’s just so many examples. Last week I got a really nice email from some colleagues from when I was in the Philippines, which – so I left the Philippines in February and last week I got an email telling me that the water’s on in two of the non functioning systems. They were non-functioning when I left and we had some filtration problems and it was a bit, it was a bit of a sad story that turned into a much happier one now. So you know that was just, you know an awesome email to get, you know the water’s on, everyone’s worked together over the last six months to make it happen.

Those kind of nice moments of reflection come when projects are finished. When you’re in the middle of them it’s really nice to see I guess progress, so you might see, you know individually on a day-to-day basis you know people who, people learning you know so someone who didn’t understand something about how a water system worked you know two, three weeks later or even three months later, is you know suddenly very involved in the maintenance committee for that water system so watching people’s progression towards understanding is I find very rewarding. 

I also enjoy a lot of random scenarios that happen, you know you often sometimes end up on an accidental 20km hike, you know drinking coconuts. You know other times suddenly you’re on a boat when you did not expect at all to be on a boat but the road was blocked and there’s only one way to get there now and that’s what you’re doing. Someone’s negotiated with someone to borrow someone’s boat and we’ll replace the fuel for the motor and you know suddenly we’re on a boat. So -

Susan
And I guess there are lots of examples like that, of really unlikely things that you find happened to you in the field. Have you got any others you can talk about?

Celeste
Well when you go to the community for the first time, there’s sometimes there’s a bit of a ceremony to welcome you which can be a bit daunting to begin with you know because you don’t know all the moves and shakes, and you also probably don’t understand a lot about what people are saying.

Susan
And you’re expected to move and shake along with the rest of it?

Celeste
You are. But I think you know being foreign if I’m there when it’s happening, I think there’s a lot of enjoyment and laughing at watching me sort of stuff it up you know. So. And then watching me get better you know and learning the dance moves yeah I learnt how to Timor two-step the other day which is the way everyone dances here, that was important.  

Susan
I think in our next podcast you’ll have to give us a little video of that. Yeah so I think again on a personal level a lot of people probably imagine that they’d love to do something similar, you know go to a developing country and help people get access to the fundamentals of life such as clean water, but what do you think it really does take to do this type of work?

Celeste
You have to give up control. You have to accept completely that it’s not up to you and it’s nothing to do with you. You now it’s – yes you’re there and you’re part of it but every decision is a group decision.  It’s what the group wants, it’s what the group needs. You know in Australia we have quite a lot of control over our lives but you don’t here on these projects you have to accept that there’s plenty of things you might think you know but there’s so much more than you don’t know. You don’t understand how or why things work here to quote, “Game of Thrones” it’s a little bit like how um, oh what’s her name says to Jon Snow, “You know, you know nothing Jon Snow.” So there. So it’s a bit like that.

Susan
And you have to just go with the flow.

Celeste
You have to go with the flow or you have to find a way to communicate or to influence the group, or the community towards something but that might take time and also there’s an assumption there that you know better than they do which you know is not necessarily the case. Yeah it’s a bit of you learn a bit and you contribute a little bit but it’s definitely not the case of you coming and sorting it out it’s not like that at all. You know I contribute bits and pieces as well as everyone else in from the team Red Cross and also the community and together we come up with some version of the solution that will improve the you know the access to water and sanitation and the overall  health of people in that community.   

Susan
And it’s lovely to hear you talk about accepting these sorts of realities. I’m interested in hearing a little bit more about the sorts of challenges, the biggest challenges you face on a day to day level. I mean you touched on the language issue. Would you say that’s one of your biggest challenges?

Celeste
It can be. My Tetun is getting better, which is helpful, I’ve been here four months now so and now I don’t have to read my words off a sheet of paper they’re sort in the back of my brain and I just have to find them and put them in the right order.

Now the difficult thing for me with the language is I can say what I need to say but sometimes you need to ask questions in undirect ways, and be a bit softer about how you approach certain sensitive topics so I’m learning how to be tactful in Tetun which is sort of the next step.

Susan
Sounds highly skilled to me.

Celeste
Yeah I mean other basic needs is that yeah I guess because of the language there being a lot of conversations that I don’t necessarily understand and as a foreigner or Malai as they call us here in Timor, you, you just don’t necessarily know things like when you’re going to be able to get fresh water next or drinking water next. We foreigners drink a lot more water than my Timorese colleagues, do here so you know yeah I guess that’s occasionally a bit of water anxiety going on. You know similarly like me, myself, I’m female in a team of predominantly males so you know classic sort of kind going to the toilet on the side of the road sometimes a little bit problematic so yeah it’s sometimes there’s a bit of where is the next possible tree? Or strategic bush yeah it can be a bit like that.

Susan
And in the local culture do people avert their eyes?

Celeste
Oh it hasn’t been too bad usually you find one but you might have to specifically request that we stop in a certain location or make it very clear that you’re going in a certain location or you’re going over here alone, or just say I’m going to the toilet over here alone I’ll be back in two minutes to not end up in some sort of group scenario yeah.

Susan
It sounds like you’ve learnt an awful lot very quickly.

Celeste
Yeah yeah, yeah.

Susan
So oh look I think it’s been – it’s been absolutely fascinating Celeste hearing some of your stories and I could listen to you talk all day but unfortunately time is limited. So I really thank you for your time and giving us a bit of a flavour of what it’s like for you working in a country that’s really not so far from Australia in one way but a long way in many other ways so Celeste thank you very much for your time.

Celeste
No problem yes it’s been good. Thanks for having me.

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