Going beneath the surface

5 min read

This year, WaterAid was the event charity partner for No-Dig Down Under 2019, one of the world’s largest events dedicated to trenchless technology. As part of the conference, WaterAid Australia’s Chief Executive Rosie Wheen was asked to speak, and used the conference theme of ‘Beneath the Surface’ to discuss WaterAid’s work.

The notion of going ‘beneath the surface’ is very relevant to WaterAid. For me, it holds a double meaning. On one hand, it refers to the importance of asking those extra questions to understand what drives and motivates us. On the other, it refers literally to the work we do, which often takes place below ground level.

Today I’d like to go beneath the surface with two groups of people: our corporate supporters and our staff.

Geoff and Kerry Weaver

For WaterAid to achieve our vision of a world where everyone has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene partnerships will be key. Something I believe is integral to successful partnerships is understanding what drives organisations; what are their values?

One of the most powerful opportunities we offer our members is the opportunity to visit our work – seeing is believing. I could tell you that seeing a grandmother turn on the tap outside her home for the first time in her life is unbelievable. Seeing it for yourself, though, is something else.

About 6 years ago, Geoff and Kerry Weaver from Interflow were a group of WaterAid supporters who visited our work in Timor-Leste. I remember spending hours with them one day, bouncing around on the terrible roads to get to the communities where WaterAid work. I learnt a lot that day about what’s beneath the surface for Geoff and Interflow – and family and making a difference are a central part of it.

On the last night of the trip we all sat around a long table and one by one shared our reflections. When it was Geoff’s turn, he stood up and spoke of the impact he could see from the work we were doing. He particularly noted the impact WaterAid was having on families, our impact on people, and how amplified it was. Of course the work of Interflow in Australia makes a difference, but Geoff could see that the partnership with WaterAid resonated so deeply with his values and beliefs and it was making such a difference.

Tim and Clara

During one of our recent fortnightly staff meetings, one of our staff, Tim, shared an update from the work he had been doing in Papua New Guinea.

He showed us all a photo of three men leaning across a table holding onto a computer mouse and smiling up at the screen. Behind them was a projection of a big red button that said ‘Launch’. We all looked at Tim as he explained the story behind this picture.

Tim is a 34-year-old engineer. He has worked with WaterAid for about 4 years, based in our office in Melbourne. Before that, he worked with Engineers without Borders in Timor-Leste alongside WaterAid staff. Tim has lost count of the amount of times he has visited Papua New Guinea to support the team over there; if pushed for a number, he says about 20. What he is absolutely clear on is what drives him.

When I ask him what lies beneath the surface on why he is so passionate about PNG there are 3 things. First of all, he is commitment to giving others the confidence to succeed – by sharing knowledge and sharing tools. Secondly, he is determined to support the Papua New Guinean government to help drive change; he is tired of the story we hear too much; that working in Papua New Guinea is too hard. Thirdly, he is committed to supporting others to succeed.

Tim has been working with a woman named Clara in the Department of Planning – Clara is from Central Bougainville and now lives and works in Port Moresby. She too is in her mid-thirties. She is breaking the mould of what is expected of women in the country by leading the technical process for how her government enables their water and sanitation policy and tracks its progress.

They have a task at hand – it’s one of the toughest tasks of any government. Less than half the population has access to water and they need to unlock millions of dollars in financial investments year on year to increase their capacity to deliver these crucial services.

It is Clara’s role to track progress against all this. When Tim first started working with her, she would stand shyly at the back of meetings. Tim’s eyes shine with pride when he describes how Clara is now leading with confidence and presenting to jammed rooms of district leaders on the policy.

The photo Tim was sharing with us, of three men leaning over the computer mouse, was taken on 22 August at 10:30 in a conference room in Port Moresby. What they were about to launch was something Clara and Tim have been working on for many months. It was something that everyone said was not possible – a national monitoring system.

Once launched this system would have data in it so that for the first time ever, the government had data for policy planning, operations and maintenance, and reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals.

That photo, that moment, was an example of how we work and live our values to transform people’s lives.

We have made great progress yet there is still so much to do.

This project is funded by Water for Women and supported by the Australian Government through the PNGAusPartnership.

This blog was adapted from Rosie’s speech at No-Dig Down Under 2019.