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The (Earth) Science of Saving Lives: Trayle Kulshan on Why She Loves Working with Water

A Conversation with ACF-Kenya’s WASH Coordinator on what motivates her work
Children benefiting from ACF-Kenya's water and sanitation programs. ACF-Kenya, photo courtesy: J. Lapegue.

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Coordinator Trayle Kulshan works with Action Against Hunger in Kenya where she oversees the extension of water and sanitation improvements to vulnerable populations in the region. The problems Trayle works on in Kenya include protecting water points from contamination, constructing fresh-water wells, and installing water-filtration systems.

Trayle was recently interviewed by Science Magazine for a special section on interesting geo-science jobs. The interview on her career in the humanitarian field provides insights into the challenges of providing clean water where there is none. With a background in the “hard sciences,” Trayle wanted to use her skills as an engineer and hydrogeologist to make a difference in people’s lives. Trayle discusses her experiences working on water and sanitation issues in the Peace Corps. and with Action Against Hunger—with stints in Afghanistan, the D.R. Congo, and Kenya. She speaks about what motivates her, and gushes about her love of teaching English, science, math, or computer skills to anyone interested in learning.

Trayle Talks with Science Magazine

What are Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) programs all about? What do you do?

Most of our programs center around providing potable water for vulnerable populations, but are implemented with a full package of sanitation and hygiene related activities, as well as community development for sustainability. Sanitation and hygiene are important because the contamination in these contexts is primarily fecal, which causes diarrheal diseases. In fact, in terms of life-saving activities, the sanitation and hygiene part of our WASH programs are the most important.

Each program is different, adapted to the country in which we work—and this is why I love my job.

What did you do in each of the places you’ve worked?

In Afghanistan, we built wells installed with hand pumps. These are hand-dug wells of up to 20 meters deep, lined with concrete culverts, and drilled wells of up to 90 meters deep using percussion type drilling rigs. We also protected and built “karezes,” which are man-made or “forced” springs for drinking water, then connected them to channel irrigation networks. In Kabul, we also worked to rehabilitate an old water network. This project involved re-drilling a large capacity borehole, pumping water up to an elevated tank, and then distributing it via a gravity-fed piped system to the population.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we protected natural springs from contamination, built hand dug wells and drilled shallow wells (for hand pumps). Also, we performed water network rehabilitation and provided drinking water by truck during emergency cholera outbreaks.

In Kenya’s arid regions, we focus on pastoralist livelihoods, where animal health is as important as human health. Several types of rainwater collection are appropriate in this context: dams for increased aquifer recharge, shallow wells inside riverbeds, infiltration wells (a big hand-dug well, which acts as a natural filter for otherwise contaminated river water), concrete lined underground tanks, earth dams (a man-made pond that collects rain water), and household filtration systems (like slow sand filters or locally made ceramic filters). Kenya is relatively developed, and so water management at all levels is also a priority.

How did you end up doing this? What is your background?

My personal interest has always been to work on something practical that contributes positively to the world—to both the environment and to humans—and ameliorates the interaction between the two. My master’s thesis applied hydro-geologic modeling to the Los Angeles Basin with the goal of developing a tool for water management (i.e., the human-environment interaction). But I missed working with people. To balance my background in the “hard sciences” of engineering and hydrogeology, I volunteered with the Peace Corps for two years, which gave me a public health and community development background as well. Most importantly, that experience gave me the opportunity to see that working abroad in interesting places in hydrogeology can actually be a career. I found that ACF was an organization that fit my idealistic goals of combining “hard” and “soft” skills to make a difference in people’s lives in a practical way.

How does your job make use of your background?

The greatest part of my job is that it uses every skill I have, and I develop new ones each day. In terms of hydrogeology, I work on a huge variety of water projects in vastly different contexts (the deserts, mountains, and rocky plains in Afghanistan; the deserts in Kenya that are prone to flooding; and the jungles, hills, and flat lake regions of the D.R. Congo). I have to quickly develop an understanding of the general hydrology of the area, especially in arid regions for spring development. My current interest is in urban areas, where resource management as well as government policy on water and sanitation become a much bigger issue than in rural areas. Hydrogeology also gives a great background for any type of data collection, analysis and interpretation. Water quality testing, social surveys, impact surveys, and water surveys all require critical and creative ways of using the data for real life applications.

And I am teaching every day. I teach science (including hydrogeology), health, math, organization, English, and computer skills to a huge variety of people: women, men, children, the illiterate, the educated, etc. I use the public health background (and French language skills) I gained from the Peace Corps in the sanitation & hygiene and community development aspects of my job. Most interestingly, I move around a lot, so adaptability, patience, and the ability to work with anyone (and make friends) are essential. I also get to be creative—drawing pictures for education, never having all the materials I need but still having to find a solution, etc.

I am still a student learning everyday as well, most notably skills in management (of people, projects, budgets, etc.), negotiation (with institutional donors, for example), organizational representation, and proposal and report writing.

Background on ACF’s Water and Sanitation Programs

Action Against Hunger’s WASH programs aim to reduce mortality and morbidity caused by preventable, water-related diseases (e.g., diarrhea) that can cause malnutrition. Action Against Hunger has developed its water and sanitation expertise over three decades of field work, advancing a number of solutions for populations at risk from water insecurity. We truck water into affected communities during emergencies, decontaminate wells and install hand-pumps. Employing sophisticated geophysics, we are able to locate water resources and tap aquifers. We protect natural springs and pipe water into villages and health centers. And we rehabilitate damaged infrastructure to ensure access to adequate sources of clean water. Our ability to deliver clean water is central to our comprehensive solutions to hunger and malnutrition

You can read the entire article from Science Magazine here.

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