Humanitarian WASH – Q&A with Travis Yates of Tufts University

Many thanks to Travis Yatestravis.yates@tufts.edufor sharing some of his insights and experiences in humanitarian WASH. 

Can you give us a brief introduction of yourself and current position?

My name is Travis Yates and I’m a post-doc at Tufts University working with Dr. Daniele Lantagne. Before my time at Tufts, I spent four years in Afghanistan with a couple international NGOs and another six months in Lebanon setting up the response for Syrian refugee influx of 2012 and 2013. After that, I received a fellowship in Water Diplomacy and started my PhD working with Dr. Lantagne on the evidence around humanitarian WASH.

I completed a couple of systematic reviews of WASH in emergencies and have been working with Dr. Lantagne ever since. My most recent work has been with the Global WASH Cluster to gather lessons learned around WASH coordination during a humanitarian response. Assessing the evidence and [potential] impact of coordination across different contexts is quite a challenge.

We have also been working on a resource center with the Global WASH Cluster to maintain key documents that WASH responders would find useful. It is not every WASH document, but focused on: lessons learned, research, or tool kits for humanitarian WASH: https://wrc.washcluster.net/

How did you get into working with humanitarian WASH programs specifically?

I applied to an internship program with an international NGO while I was in my final year at university. A six-month commitment abroad seemed like a great opportunity to use my freshly learned engineering skills to help others, not to mention a bit of an adventure.

I was stationed in Afghanistan and had good exposure to writing proposals, organizing workshops, and working with a diverse team. I loved it and came back for a couple more years. I liked the challenges and serving communities in need. I’ve had a few different positions in my international experience but I focused on WASH mostly because of my background with civil engineering.

That focus continued in graduate school, first in applied fluid mechanics then toward public health in the environmental health program at Tufts. Overall, it has been a good balance between engineering and health that I think we see in WASH programming.

Where do you see the humanitarian WASH field headed in the next 5–10 years?

Evidence and Data. I could be biased, but it seems that there is a big push toward more evidence in humanitarian work, and consequently we need more data. Donors and responding organizations want to knowwhat works and what doesn’t.

With more people in need, we need to make sure projects are truly making an impact. Unfortunately, any responder would tell you that getting the data in an emergency to support evidence is just really hard. Timing and logistics are challenges, available resources and ethics considerations are difficult too.

It’s also important to note that this isn’t collecting data for the sake of more data. It needs to be specific and targeted. We have been doing WASH projects for a long time and we have a good grasp on many aspects; however, gaps remain – which is why I think some of the gap exercises and reviews are important for the entire sector.

More specifically, I see cash and vouchers playing a bigger role in the humanitarian response – especially in some of the chronic and protracted contexts which we are seeing more of. I also think expectations around program quality will progress. Tufts has a small role working with Oxfam and Solidarités to help define WASH quality and beneficiary accountability. It is certainly something we need to be working toward and I’m glad to be in that conversation.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges ahead for humanitarian WASH?

Transitioning to Development and Funding. Going from an emergency to development is a big transition and I don’t think we have many good examples of that consistently working well. Bringing in local government and national organizations will be a key component to success, but there is a lot of variability between contexts.

And then, I think funding will be an issue simply because we have more people in need for longer times. Already many contexts are underfunded, but there is also increasing impacts with climate change and multiple large-scale conflicts around the world. We have to get more efficient with our projects because the basic needs beneficiaries will still be there.

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