I have long admired the work and reputation of Medair, an international agency relieving human suffering in some of the world’s most remote and devastated places. I was glad to be contacted a few weeks ago and asked to undertake a technical consultancy for them in the world’s youngest country, S. Sudan.
Basic services we take for granted in the UK (electricity, water and sewerage) can be absent or inconsistent in developing countries, and a significant challenge for relief agencies is maintaining electrical infrastructure to safe and effective standards. For this reason I was contracted to assess and make recommendations for improvements to the electrical supply and distribution at the Medair Office and Accommodation compound in Juba.
Great to be back in the field, and in a location I am familiar with from Tearfund days. I felt thoroughly welcomed by the Medair team and was able to dive right into the fascinating conundrum presented by their compound electrics. After a security briefing, general briefing and site tour I began lifting the cover on various parts of the system to understand how mains power, generator power, solar power and inverted battery power are supposed to be distributed to deliver 24/7 supply across the site.
It was encouraging to find that several key aspects of the system were of high quality and well installed, due to the efforts of a previous Medair logistician and experienced electrician. As ever the biggest challenge is often the local wiring, which is a credit to the ingenuity of those who put it in, who always find a way to get electricity to come out at the other end. The difficulty is the scenic route that electricity takes, often down very thin poor quality wires of indiscriminate colour coding, and not infrequently electrifying parts of the circuit which should never be live.
The tendency of poor wiring to act like a fuse in the event of a surge, and melt together with other wires is the source of many ills in NGO compounds. Working with electricity requires constant vigilance about what is live to avoid a shocking time. Mercifully careful planning, working at odd hours to avoid disrupting staff, and locking the generator shed ensured I could poke around without any hair raising experiences.
More novel hazards included live snake eggs found inside a double wall socket, torrential rain and broken roofing tiles, and the fact that repairing a 500W halogen security light is a superb way to meet all the insect life from a half mile radius!
After 12 days assessing, advising, speaking with staff and suppliers, and re-wiring some aspects of the system, I felt confident to complete my recommendations and action plan. Happily it is now possible to find contractors in Juba able to repair and upgrade electrical systems to satisfactory standards, and who are able to accommodate the requirements of international organisations. I enjoyed my time with Medair immensely and wish the team every success as they continue to meet the needs of people exposed to extraordinary poverty.