Beyond Providing Clean Water: A Profile of Development Engineer Syed Imran Ali


By Tamara Straus

Imran Ali PhotoIn August 2010, while floods from monsoon rains covered a fifth of Pakistan, Syed Imran Ali, an environmental engineering PhD student from University of Guelph, sat in a newly built lecture hall at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. Ali was in South India to research safe water systems in slums—and, as is typical in academia, a visiting professor had come to give a lecture and graduate students were expected to fill the hall. The lecture, by a Purdue University professor, was on a stochastic method to predict floods, and as Ali sat there, his demeanor, characteristically courteous, attentive, and collegial, started to shift.

“I started to think: I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t think anyone else in this room knows what you’re talking about,” said Ali, now a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. “Moreover, I began to think: I don’t care. Talking about forecasting floods—when there was a flood next door and people were dying in it—was just untenable.”

Ali went back to his office, turned on his computer, and began calling NGOs, government agencies, and UN offices, offering his water and sanitation expertise to help respond to cholera outbreaks in Pakistan displacement camps. He was told he would need to formally apply, and he was told he would need to be interviewed, and he was told he would need to be approved before being sent into the field. He also sowed confusion when he explained his background: a Canadian engineer, of Pakistani origin, working in India, seeking to go to Pakistan, India’s enemy, to help with the flood.

Finally, Ali got hold of the number for the Pakistan headquarters of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) and found himself on the phone with the head of mission, an Italian nurse, “who was totally frazzled.” “He asked me,” said Ali, “whether I could work a water treatment unit. I told him I could figure it out. He told me to send him my CV. That evening, I had a phone conversation with MSF in London, and two days later I was flying to Pakistan.”

Ali’s job was to set up a water treatment unit, to supply safe water to one of the many camps for internally displaced persons in Sukkur, Pakistan. Sukkur had been the third largest city of the Sindh province, but by the time Ali arrived in August 2010 the Pakistani army was evacuating 350,000 people from low-lying areas and bringing them to the higher grounds of what would become a refugee city of half million. Ali was told an experienced WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) specialist from MSF would supervise his work. But the specialist got held back at another camp with a cholera outbreak, so the 26-year-old had to wing it. “It was sort of like Lego,” said Ali of his experience assembling the MSF equipment entirely from manuals. He worked there for five weeks, treating river water and training local staff to operate the water treatment plant.

Since that time, Ali has grappled with what it means to be a development, or humanitarian, engineer. His dissertation, published in 2012, was not typical of an academic engineer. Instead of focusing only on new techniques for efficient and safe water systems for South Asian slums, he questioned the moral and political complexity of their implementation. Ali advocates a “participatory design” approach, in which technicians like himself collaborate with “users” (in his case, slum residents), to come up with sustainable and contextually appropriate solutions to water and sanitation systems.

IMG_7575The impetus for this has come from deep reading of post-colonial scholars like Frantz Fanon and Paulo Friere. It also has come from the four on-and-off years Ali spent in a slum called Mylai Balaji Nagar on the outskirts of Chennai, India. There, about 10,000 residents continue to rely on highly polluted surface water. Ali first showed up in the ramshackle sprawl of a town in 2009, as part of a University of Guelph-IIT project that he started. His goal was to remove contaminants from the water system, which was drawn from a polluted lake and was pumped, often untreated, into standpipes where it was used for bathing, food preparation, and drinking. But the longer he stayed in Mylai Balaji Nagar, the more Ali learned that the residents’ views of clean water did not necessarily cohere with his or his university colleagues.

Through interviews and focus groups, Ali gleaned a couple of key details: that the residents of Mylai Balaji Nagar had been forcibly moved there in 1995 to make way for the city’s railway expansion; that the government had never consistently supplied adequate or clean water to the area; and that residents considered water and sanitation services to be a government, not a community or individual responsibility. Ali also learned that everything that the community had managed to get in terms of education, health, or housing supports—had come from lobbying the government.

“I came to realize that much of my work in Mylai Balaji Nagar was what University of Toronto Anthropology Professor Tania Li calls ‘rendering technical,’” explained Ali. “Residents viewed the water supply as the responsibility of the government and they demanded water and other rights through collective political mobilization and direct action. Often, they won. But we engineers were focusing on doing water treatment with residents at the household level.

“You see,” continued Ali. “I rendered technical the water supply problem at Mylai Balalji Nagar. And in doing so, I submerged the political economy of water in this community’s history.”

Ali defines rendering technical as stripping a phenomenon of its complex social, political, and economic realities and distilling it to just its technical aspects. He said people in international development do this for two reasons: “One, we are technical experts and see the world through the framework of the solutions we have to offer; and two, it gives us something to do.” Ali adds to this list a third reason: human fallibility, especially in crisis situations.

In September 2012, Ali enlisted for a second humanitarian crisis. He joined an eight-month mission with Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, where the newly independent country was being overwhelmed with refugees escaping years of violent clashes. Ali’s job was to implement emergency water treatment systems in refugee and transit camps, manage water and sanitation infrastructure and staff in MSF healthcare facilities, and lead camp sanitation building projects. He was witness to a severe health crisis at a camp called Jamam on the Upper Nile state of South Sudan, to which 30,000 people had fled. Jamam, which means “swamp” in Maban, was picked in haste by authorities of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and in part because it was 50 km from the Sudanese border, a UNHCR requirement. The place lived up to its name. When the rainy season hit in May, the camp flooded and diarrheal illnesses and hepatitis E overwhelmed the refugee population.

Ali and his colleagues worked tirelessly. In a Jan. 29, 2013 MSF blog, he wrote: “I’ve stopped thinking. The last time I stopped to think something out, to parse it, to give it a name, was months ago …. [Yet] I had a home that was not this place, this strange, inhospitable, impossible place that is now home for 15,000, 65,000, 115,000 people, who had to run here, and from where it seems like they won’t leave for a long time still, for the abode of war still reigns in their hills.”

Among the reasons that Ali’s brain was functioning only for emergency purposes was because by January he was also working in a nearby refugee camp called Batil, which had become home to 35,000 people and where a third of the camp had no sanitation services. The result was another large hepatitis E outbreak from so many people defecating outside. “There’s a structural problem in the humanitarian system,” said Ali in response to why the story of aid seems often to be one of failure. “There’s no feedback mechanism. No one in the field has the capacity, because they’re always reacting.”

But Ali has found a way to provide feedback. During his time at the Jamam refugee camp, he realized that chlorination levels for camp water systems were based on standards for municipal water systems with sophisticated infrastructure—even though a refugee camp is radically different from a city. To deal with the daily reality of sick and dying people, Ali began to study how free residual chlorine in water behaved in the refugee camp setting. He soon discovered that it was inadequate—that within four to six hours of collection, the chlorine was mostly gone. He set out to correct this oversight.

Ali’s current work at the Blum Center may very well rewrite the UN guidelines for refugee camp water systems, protecting upwards of 50 million people. “This project will help to build the evidential base for safe water practices in humanitarian settings, something which is almost totally lacking at present,” said one of Ali’s mentors, Ed McBean, a professor of engineering at University of Guelph, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Water Supply Security. “The work will improve best practices for safe water supply in emergencies the world over.”

IMAG1243Last summer, in collaboration with UNHCR, Ali collected chlorination level data at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, and in 2015 he will do the same at two more sites, in Rwanda and Jordan, and take data during the winter to observe any seasonal effects. By 2016, he expects he will have analyzed and generated a revision document for varying refugee camp conditions, which can feed directly into the UNHCR guidelines. Ali does not expect implementation will be difficult, as his work is “an evidence-driven improvement of existing practices.”

When Ali tells people about his discovery at the Jamam camp, they tend to be shocked. How could humanitarian organizations overlook something so simple as low chlorination levels in water? Isn’t chlorine in water the most well-known and well-used means to ensure water is safe to drink and use? “I think it’s been the accidental engagement of academic researchers like myself in the field that have encouraged this,” said Ali. “People in the field have already always known [about chlorination problems], they just haven’t had the chance to study it and push it.” Ali adds that the negative consequence of higher chlorination levels is poor taste and odor. The balance is to have just enough chlorine to protect the water, but not so much to drive rejection of the water.

When it comes to the larger questions and goals of international development—the eradication of extreme poverty, safe drinking water and sanitation for all, universal access to maternal health—Ali’s humanism and historicism seems to outweigh his optimism. “The 19th century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, once remarked, ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means,’” he said. “Since the Marshall Plan and the early years of the Cold War, I believe that development has become the continuation of politics by other means.” Ali does not believe that international development practitioners are doomed to come up with only short-term solutions that avoid the systemic political factors that underlay poverty. But he believes that they, and he, must tread carefully.

“I understand why we’ve moved away from large-scale development,” said Ali. “We’ve been humbled by the technical failures of the 1960s, by the macro level approach. So we’re now looking at development through a micro level. We can’t change the macro conditions of global health, so we create a device that improves healthcare access to rural clinics. In that way, we’re doing a lot of little things and, especially as engineers, we’re doing these things without any real literacy about the sources of the problems.”

Ali hopes a corrective to this problem—to the problem of “rendering technical”—will come through the new field of Development Engineering, which began offering classes to graduate engineering students at UC Berkeley in the fall of 2014. Development Engineering, he argues, is different from traditional engineering in that the field aims to re-center technical issues, like clean water provision, within the larger contexts of political economy and society.

“Introducing non-technical elements in my engineering training was really difficult at first, but I saw it as necessary,” said Ali. “Working with non-engineers was confusing initially, because I didn’t quite understand their language,” he continued, “but there was something important there that I needed to understand. It challenged me to go beyond my own technical lens and learn to see from perspectives of new fields.

“Working across disciplinary divides requires intellectual humility. But it’s given me ideas about how we can use technical solutions to address development challenges in solidarity with the people we aim to help.”