16 Nov 2023
Podcast Ep 4: Kathryn Harries is sharing the power of clean water

It’s not a glamorous job, working with toilets. But having access to clean water, sanitation and good hygiene is lifesaving stuff, and thankfully for us it’s Kathryn Harries’ dream job. 

A highly experienced water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) engineer and humanitarian leader, Kathryn worked for Sydney Water Corporation for a decade before transitioning to the international humanitarian sector.  

Since then, for nearly 20 years, Kathryn has devoted her life to helping provide clean water and sanitation for people affected by humanitarian disasters around the world.  

In this episode, Sally chats with Kathryn about the power of her life-saving work, the moment she realised she wanted to become a WASH engineer, her work in academia with the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership at Deakin University, and what she loves about being an associate trainer with RedR Australia. 

As part of her PhD, Kathryn developed a guide, called the Field Team Impact Kit, which aims to help technical teams in humanitarian and development organisations to be more effective, sustainable and locally led.  

You can learn more about Kathryn’s Field Team Impact Kit here. 

You can find out more about RedR Australia’s training courses here. 

Host: Sally Cunningham    

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar 

Join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. 


SALLY: This Humanitarian Conversations podcast was recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, also known as Melbourne, Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge and seek to champion the continued connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to land, waterways and skies, and we pay our respects to all First Nations people whose communities we work in across the world. Hello, and welcome to Humanitarian Conversations, a RedR Australia podcast which explores what it means to be humanitarian in today's world. I'm Sally Cunningham. It’s not a glamorous job working with toilets. But my goodness having access to clean water, sanitation and good hygiene is lifesaving stuff. And thankfully for us it’s Kathryn Harries, dream job. A highly experienced water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) engineer and humanitarian leader, Kathryn Harries worked for Sydney Water Corporation for a decade before transitioning to the international humanitarian sector. Since then, for nearly 20 years, Kathryn has devoted her life to helping provide clean water and sanitation for people affected by humanitarian disasters around the world. In this episode, I chatted with Kathryn about the power of her life-saving work, the moment she realised she wanted to become a WASH engineer, her work in academia with the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership at Deakin University, and what she loves about being a trainer with RedR Australia. As part of her PhD, Kathryn is developing a guide, called the Field Team Impact Kit, which aims to help technical teams in humanitarian and development organisations to be more effective, sustainable and locally led. But first, I asked her—what is WASH? 

KATHRYN: Well, you're in for a bit of excitement. So ‘WASH’ is water, sanitation and hygiene. Many people are very excited about the water side; that's providing clean water. But really, probably the most critical part is sanitation. So that's getting excreta out of the environment, in a toilet or something similar. Then the hygiene, which is firstly hand washing with soap before and after using the toilet. Hygiene promotion incorporates behavior change to actually use the clean water, and use more sanitary processes. 

SALLY: So what did draw you to WASH? 

KATHRYN: I spent a lot of my early years trying to find the thing that really grabbed me. And I did a range of different jobs. And then I finally went to a career counselor to try and decide: what is it that I'm interested in? There was about 10 hours worth of questions and I was ticking all the things that were engineering- or water-related highly. And then there was one question and it was 'would you like to take microbiological samples at a sewage treatment plant?' And I'm very head driven, but my little heart leapt out of my chest and I just thought, wow, wouldn't that be fabulous? And I just thought, well, I bought some champagne and I went and celebrated with friends and family after that, because I thought: I found my area. And it was then I applied for the Masters. And I joined Sydney Water to try and get that expertise. 

SALLY: Wonderful. So that sounds like a bit of a lightbulb moment? 

KATHRYN: Definitely, definitely. 

SALLY: So now that you're right in it, you've got lots of experience, I imagine you spend a lot of time talking about human excrement. So what's it like talking about poo all day? 

KATHRYN: Well, it's talking about poo, it's taking photos of toilets. When I was in the sewage plant, it included shoveling shit. Now I have to just explain I sometimes use the term 'shit' instead of excreta. The reason for that is, behavior change is a critical part of the whole process of getting people to use toilets, particularly after disasters, if they're not used to it. In many cases, they say that people who are used to open defecating—for some of them, using a toilet is just as difficult as for someone who normally uses a toilet to open defecate. So there needs to be this behavior change. You may go out to a field rather than talking to a community in the center of the village and telling them the health benefits of using toilets. You go to the area which is the open defecation area, and you do different exercises. And you use the term which is the most disgusting or extreme term for excreta. So that's where we started using 'shit'. There's exercises like: ask someone if they'd like a glass of water, and they'll say, yes, sure. There'll be some excrement on the ground, and you'll get your hair and you'll stick a piece of hair in it, then you'll stick that in the glass. And then you'll ask people, would you like to drink it now?  

SALLY: Yeah.  

KATHRYN: And generally people have this disgusted response. But this actually, if you do that, and other exercises, the community learns that if anyone is open defecating—because of flies, because of the shit getting into the water supply—that if anyone open defecates, then anyone's eating their shit. So if it's done right, the community will actually march back into town to say, we're going to be an open-defecation-free village. So it's a bottom-up approach. And they support each other to build toilets. So sorry, that was just to explain 'shit'. 

SALLY: No, no, that's a really good visual demonstration. And, yeah, I can imagine that's really clear to understand. And that's the point. And that's the point you're making about using the right language to reinforce the lessons that you're trying to share. So I'm going to backtrack a little. Early in your working life, you were a Contiki tour leader. Now you're about to complete your PhD in humanitarian studies. What was that journey like? What were some key lessons along the way? 

KATHRYN: It's really interesting thinking back to when I started. And as I said, I did a range of different jobs when I first went...after I'd graduated to try to see what I'd like. You know, the Contiki time was more trying to find my passion. And that was great, because you really, by trying a lot of jobs, you pick up a lot of skills; skills that have come into great use later on, and make you a bit unique as well. The second part, I think, was then once I found my passion, and I'd been to the career counselor and figured out what I want to specialise in, I consider that almost like my apprenticeship. Because to actually work internationally have to be an expert in your field. So I worked for Sydney Water, operating and managing sewage treatment plants. I set up a management system to improve the effectiveness of the eight business units all involved in the wastewater process. At the same time, I completed a Master's of Engineering Science, and later did a postgraduate certificate in low-cost water, sanitation and hygiene. And I did a few emergency assignments. And so that was like my apprenticeship time. Then I moved across to actually working internationally and was able to work in some amazing places. So in the Philippines, East Timor, Geneva, India, Sri Lanka, Somalia. And so I was actually able to support the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene to people who don't have it; people—vulnerable people—who are fleeing disaster, or in development, so the long-term poor. And that was very challenging, yet very satisfying. But now, you know, at the end of that, I felt there was a gap there that I really wanted to...to me, it was a critical gap that really links to a lot of problems in the sector. And it was difficult when I explained to people, for them to understand what I was talking about. So I wanted to produce an example of it. So that's where the PhD came in. So now I suppose this stage is more trying to be able to support others to be able to improve how they provide water, sanitation and hygiene to vulnerable people. And the guide I'm developing isn't really just for WASH, it's really for any technical group. So it's bringing back that whole management system that I was working with in Sydney Water, so using those skills. But bringing back to the Contiki, I just want to say that, in fact, it really gave me great skills. I mean, it was a weird job to take, but it's great to be able to take trips around continental Europe. In Contiki, you are not a boss, you are not a leader. Normally in a leadership role, you will tell someone what to do, and they have to do it. In Contiki, as the tour leader, everyone's paid for their trip. Your job is to give them all the trip of a lifetime. So it's a bit of sales, it's a bit of understanding what their needs are and actually taking these 50 people on a journey. And I found exactly the same skills required when I was WASH cluster coordinator in Somalia. So in WASH cluster, again, different than other emergency responses...normally, within a country in an emergency response, you will have an incident commander and they will say what's required and everyone has to follow. In the humanitarian sector, it's different. Each organisation is independent. And there's advantages to that. But there's also challenges because it means that in the response, it's based on collaboration and consensus. And so as the WASH cluster coordinator, you are trying to coordinate, in my case, 180 organisations. But my job, in some ways similar to the Contiki tour leader, is to support all those organisations to achieve their mandate more quickly and effectively. To use their money most effectively. But you're not telling people what to do. So in fact, you know, the skills I learned way back in Contiki became very useful later on.  

SALLY: I wasn't expecting you to make it make such sense. Can you tell us a story about a time when you've witnessed the powerful impact of this work? 

KATHRYN: My time in Somalia. The country was coming out of famine and was in drought. You know, there was mass malnutrition and people were extremely vulnerable. And the rains were coming. And when people open defecate, they often defecate alongside riverbanks and so when the rains come, it all goes down into the rivers and can contaminate downstream. And cholera is endemic in Somalia. And there was another challenge there, in that non-state actors had banned the work of two large organisations who were responsible for, basically...they had agreements with local organisations to respond to any cholera outbreaks or acute watery diarrhea—to provide chlorination, to provide oral rehydration salts, just to try and get on top of any cholera outbreaks. And this non-state actor had banned their work. So it meant that if cholera took off, there was nothing to stop it. And I was WASH cluster coordinator then, so I was coordinating all the organisations. So it was a very challenging time. And I could just see cholera taking off, and people coming to me and saying, as WASH cluster coordinator, why didn't you do X, Y and Z? And what is the way out of this? But you know, the cluster came together and we were able to actually come up with alternatives. So different local organisations took some of these roles in each district, or in each sub-regional area, so they could have prepositioned stock. And we put a system in place that was safe for them to be able to share that. We had district-level focal points for acute watery diarrhea and cholera—so information didn't have to come to me. If anyone wanted to respond, they could contact this local person. So really, it was further localising what we were doing. And it worked. The rains came and there weren't large outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea or cholera. Later that happened in Yemen; there was a large death rate from cholera taking off. And asking the cluster, you know, how did we avoid these outbreaks? They said it's because of our work.  

SALLY: Amazing. 

KATHRYN: You know, and this is something which is going to be more sustainable. So it's actually empowering the most local responders as possible, to be able to have a more sustainable response. 

SALLY: So I'm going to gently segue now, from your amazing field work to training humanitarians for the future. What do you love about teaching humanitarians? 

KATHRYN: I really enjoy connecting with people who are both interesting in their own right, because they've all come from different pathways, but also people who are interested in the humanitarian world. I also really enjoy being able to strengthen future humanitarians to better meet the challenge. The Essentials of Humanitarian Practice [course] is a really great course. And also, I've got to say, it's great working with the other trainers. There's a number of us on each course and they're really wonderful people. And we do have—it's intense, but it's such fun. 

SALLY: Now, if we reflect on your experience, what is the importance of education in application to the humanitarian sector? 

KATHRYN: I think education is critical. Donors will often fund training in international development, but not in humanitarian response. So in fact, there's less opportunity for training and education in a humanitarian response. But with regard to the education I've done; oh, the joy that I would have when I received my package of material from WEDC on low-cost water, sanitation and hygiene. I'd done a few assignments with the Philippine National Red Cross, and the first one with RedR. And my knowledge was appreciated by everyone. However, I wondered if me doing first principles...am I actually sending them down the wrong path? I'd like to learn from other people who have responded—in this case, it was more on a development side—what has worked in low-cost settings. So I was plant manager of a sewage treatment plant at this stage. And I was doing WEDC—it's the Water Engineering Development Center at Loughborough University. At that time, it was the most practical place to learn field WASH skills. And they had a remote course. And they'd send you two textbooks and questions and assignments. Just to be able to learn from others, you know, not to reinvent the wheel. To learn what is good practice. So if you're supporting communities, you're supporting organisations to set up systems, you're working on the strengths of others. And the PhD; to have a chance to, I've been so privileged to have a chance to actually explore these big questions. Why doesn't leadership look at these frontline teams? Why does...you know, leadership looks at a hero leader. Or if it looks at a team, it looks at the top-level team. Well, what about leading these teams at the frontline? They're the organisational representatives closest to the people affected by disaster. You know, if we can strengthen those field teams, it strengthens a whole organisation. But how do we do that in a complex environment? How do we support knowledge at this team level? So I suppose, education is critical. But it's a privilege to be able to get the time to be able to do it. And many people, particularly in humanitarian response, don't get that possibility. 

SALLY: So with your many years of valuable experience in both WASH and the humanitarian sphere, what words of wisdom would you like to share with young humanitarians and other people considering moving their career into the space? 

KATHRYN: It's tricky. If you're in Australia, often your skills...like, my master's was in large-scale sewerage and large-scale water supply. I had to do my post-grad certificate in low-cost water, sanitation and hygiene to understand more about that area. But there's this wealth of other things, you know, to actually understand all these cross-cutting issues of inclusion, of gender, of people with disabilities. Something else to add there is when you come in from a technical angle, you often miss, like you're saying, the protection and the inclusion side. But we also miss things like the humanitarian principles. You know, to actually understand the challenges. I mean, the strength of organisations, but also the challenges of actually working independently. Something else for people coming into the sector, just the need for pretty strong mental...well, for mental strength. There are some challenging situations you find yourself in, and it's good to have actually had some experiences in your life that will strengthen you so you're able to deal with them. So when I was in Somalia, I think I arrived early December, and a drought was declared. And a number of million dollars worth of funding was allocated to WASH. And it was my job to be able to identify the proposals that would be funded. So I was reasonably new in the role, just a month. That was my first cluster coordination role. Yet, I was informed that, you know, if I don't do this well, and people don't get funded, I'll get death threats. You know, and it just means...Now, I quite like setting up systems and I was able to set up quite a transparent system with a point mechanism so that it was quite fair, how these proposals would be funded. I mean, there was negative time to do this. But I was able to put it in place. And later, when one of these large organisations, a local organisation, hadn't been funded, and they asked for a meeting with me, I was somewhat nervous. But they actually asked about something else. And I said, I thought you'd be asking, because you didn't get funding. And he said, ‘No, no. I knew you had a system in place. And we didn't get funded, but it was fair.’ So it was okay. But you know, just this potential for death threats. And in another assignment, I was the first international WASH specialist in a sub-national position. And I was there for a few years. Professionally, it was absolutely fabulous. But personally, it was very challenging, particularly being a woman. I think if I was a man, I would fit in on the streets more and could talk to people. But as a woman, I was respected, but I wasn't as warmly welcomed. So it's just having the strength, the mental strength, to be able to deal with that. And I think my Contiki time as well...on the Contiki tours, they set us all off on a bus. And then if you didn't make the grade, you'd be chucked off anywhere. And they were really gruff with us. They just tried to make it as difficult as possible; we're on this trip for about 30 days. And really, you had to have your own stamina to be able to cope with it. But anyway, whether that's the case, or whether I picked it up somewhere else. But anyway, just to say, you've got to be pretty mentally strong. And the reverse culture shock I've found more challenging than the culture shock. So coming back; you're used to this world, and you've got these wonderful colleagues and friends around the world. And coming back to your home country, and that's not the language people speak, is quite challenging. So just keep that in mind. So you're prepared for that. I think also, you know, the knowledge that you learn on the Essentials of Humanitarian Practice is fabulous, it takes you out of your technical area and gives you these other skills which are essential for humanitarian response. But then, for me, it was a number of years before I actually deployed. And so you know, that information isn't quite at hand. And I must say, this guide that I've produced, I'm hoping that this here will actually support that—you know, field teams to actually have access to the latest knowledge outside their technical area to be able to support improved accountability and sustainability. To help them adapt and support a locally led response. 

SALLY: Thank you. There's a lot to learn there and I am by no means a WASH specialist, even though I do wash my hands I promise. Thanks for your time today, Kathryn. It's been great. 

KATHRYN: Pleasure.