Venezuela is in a state of crisis, causing many Venezuelans to flee across the border to Colombia. Due to the COVID-pandemic and the growing number of refugees and migrants, additional help is needed in regard to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). WASH expert Angélica Rada saw this need as well. Via the Dutch Surge Support programme (DSS water), she was deployed to Colombia to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in its WASH efforts.

During her deployment, looking out from her apartment, she could clearly see the effects of Colombia’s lockdown. The streets in and around the typically bustling border town of Maicao were virtually deserted. It is quite different from the situation in May 2019, when Rada began her WASH position. “The refugee organisation of the United Nations, the UNHCR, has set up a transition centre outside the city. I was asked to ensure the installation of proper WASH facilities. I had to make sure the surrounding community had access to such facilities as well. That includes things like the distribution of clean drinking water.”

Being flexible and creative

For Rada, no two days were the same and her work is unpredictable. One day, she was using playful methods to teach refugee children about the risk of infection. The next, she was consulting with stakeholders on measures to be taken after a series of positive coronavirus tests in the region or she might be installing sanitation units in hospitals to support the government. “It teaches you to be very flexible and creative and to respond quickly to unexpected situations.”

Learning from refugees

According to Rada, working with refugees also teaches you to be humble. “Not just because of their positive and resilient attitude, but because they have so much knowledge and talent to offer. When we were building refugee housing units, for example, we didn’t know how to keep the structures cool. But then a woman who was passing by showed us a clever way to place the doors. Problem solved.”

Extended stay

Rada travelled to Colombia for what was initially supposed to be a period of three months. The UNHCR submitted two requests for extension. The second request was taken into consideration by the Partners for Water programme. “I had finally booked a flight back to the Netherlands for April of this year. But then the coronavirus struck. The UNHCR did not have a WASH expert lined up for Colombia, even though proper knowledge and facilities for things like hand-washing are particularly vital in the current situation. And so I decided to continue my work here.”

Projects abroad highly recommended

Rada, who is Colombian herself, studied at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and lives in the Netherlands. Because of her background, she was highly motivated at the start of the position. And that satisfaction has only grown along the way. “It is great being able to offer practical help the most vulnerable people and to combat the spread of the coronavirus. You learn so much from this kind of adventure, too. If you ask me, every expert should take part in a similar project abroad. Even if it is only for a few months.”

Support from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency and NWP

The Netherlands Enterprise Agency, the Netherlands Red Cross and the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP) are supporting the DSS water experts. They are in contact with international humanitarian organisations and coordinate the deployment of selected Dutch water experts registered in the DSS roster.

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Dutch Surge Support (DSS water)