A Growing Nonprofit Helps Promote Clean, Safe, Reliable Water Service in the Developing World

North American volunteers join Operators Without Borders to help improve wastewater treatment in the world’s neediest place

A Growing Nonprofit Helps Promote Clean, Safe, Reliable Water Service in the Developing World

Valerie Jenkinson presented a keynote address at the 2022 Canadian Water and Wastewater Association National Water and Wastewater Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The world watches as Western countries pour military aid into Ukraine to help its army fight off the Russian invaders.

What the world doesn’t see is the water and wastewater treatment expertise flowing into that country by way of the five-year-old organization called Operators Without Borders. Ukraine is just one of several places where operators from North America are helping developing countries, and those dealing with the aftermath of disasters, to restore and improve their water and wastewater services.

OWB deploys certified operators who are willing to volunteer in challenging situations. They work alongside utility personnel in their host countries toward restoring treatment plants and networks and training facility staff. The host utility pays no labor cost. OWB raises funds to cover volunteers’ airfare, and the utility provides accommodation and meals.

The volunteer operators arrive in teams and work for terms of at least two weeks. In extremely difficult situations (such as Ukraine) where the volunteers would be at risk, they lend expertise and support remotely.

The organization has partners that include the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Association, the Environmental Operators Certification Program, the Caribbean Water and Sewerage Association, and the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association. Valerie Jenkinson, a founding director of OWB and CEO of World Water and Wastewater Solutions, talked about the organization in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is your background in the water sector?

Jenkinson: My background is in education and management, and I have worked in the water industry for about 14 years. In 2017 I had been working in the Caribbean water industry for about 10 years. I had a consulting company doing capacity building, to include training and climate change resiliency measures.

TPO: Where did the idea for Operators Without Borders originate?

Jenkinson: In 2017 the Caribbean nations were hit hard by hurricanes Irma and Maria. At the Caribbean Water and Wastewater Association meeting in Guyana, the keynote speaker was Bernard Ettinoffe, general manager of the Dominica Water and Sewage Company. He described the damage from Irma. There wasn’t a house on the island that was not damaged. After his presentation, I asked him, “What do you need?” He said “We need everything. We could use some people to help us rebuild.”

TPO: How did you respond to his appeal?

Jenkinson: I was on my way to the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association conference, and I asked the executive director, Robert Haller, if I could make a presentation so we could collect money to provide some help. He agreed. I made the presentation, and a lot of people said they would love to volunteer, but only three could help on short notice. We raised enough money through a silent auction to send them to Dominica.

TPO: What were these three volunteers able to accomplish?

Jenkinson: This was about two-and-a-half months after the hurricane. There was still no electricity on the island, the wastewater treatment plant was down, and water was not available in many of the villages. At that point we weren’t an organization yet, just three people and myself saying, “What can we do to help?” In two weeks the volunteers got the wastewater plant up and running and fixed the outfall piping that had been destroyed. We also gave them training so they could run the plant according to best practices after we left.

TPO: From that beginning, how did Operators Without Borders become established?

Jenkinson: The Dominica experience was so successful that I thought, why stop here? A whole bunch of people have volunteered. Let’s set something up. I asked several prominent people in Canada to be on our board of directors, and we started OWB. We initially raised about $5,000. We had no paid staff. We received our non-government organization status in 2018. We earned our charitable status in Canada in 2020 and are seeking that in the U.S. as well.

TPO: Where does the money for OWB come from?

Jenkinson: I speak at conferences. For example, I spoke at the WWETT Show. They gave us a donation of $5,000 and then put a message on their registration page asking for help for us, which resulted in an additional $3,000. I believe we are the only charity in the world that focuses on operators and utilities. We are a charity of choice for WEF and the WWETT Show.

TPO: Who decides what kind of work the volunteer operators perform?

Jenkinson: We go at the behest of the utility. We ask: What would you like us to do? Our volunteers are all certified operators. They have great expertise, and often the utility staff will say, “OK, you know what you’re doing, you can lead the charge on what you do.” When people realize how much experience we bring to the table, they are generally pretty happy, but we work alongside the local employees and do whatever they request.

TPO: Why have you branched out beyond helping with natural disasters?

Jenkinson: We had about 60 volunteers sign up, and that was more than needed for help with disasters. So, we turned on a dime. Having worked in the Caribbean for all these years, I knew how little training was done there. We work very closely with Caribbean Water and Sewerage Association to provide training. We have offered numerous courses free of charge, both in person and online.

TPO: What would you cite as an example of a successful training program?

Jenkinson: In Belize we trained 120 of their staff — all the operators, the health and safety staff and their management — in safety aspects. We put on a one-week course covering confined space, trenching and excavating, chlorine leaks and contamination, and we trained all those people. Last November we worked with the Global Water and Wastewater Initiative and did a pilot test in Kenya. We got, to our knowledge, the first two operators ever certified in Africa.

TPO: What is your organization’s involvement in Ukraine?

Jenkinson: Our work there has been primarily remote. We don’t send anyone into danger. We’ve been doing just a massive amount of work with the Ukraine Water Quality Technical Group. Their systems weren’t great before the war, and now they need even more help. One of our volunteers put together a paper on decentralized systems to help them understand the factors to consider when choosing that equipment. We’ve also putting together two workshops for water utilities and the Ministry of Health on nuclear and chemical contamination of water systems. We hope that never has to be used, but they had nothing like it in place and didn’t know much about that topic.

TPO: What about basic water and wastewater training?

Jenkinson: We’ve been doing 12-week courses. We’ve done wastewater collection and treatment training in Barbados, St. Lucia, Belize and Grenada. During COVID some of our trainers got up at four in the morning and trained for three hours every week for 12 weeks before they went to their jobs. All our people are volunteers who work for utilities, or work in other water professions. They volunteer their time and their holidays.

TPO: What other kinds of training can you provide?

Jenkinson: We offer incident command systems training, which is used by FEMA in the U.S. and also in Canada and the Caribbean. It deals with how to manage a disaster after it has happened. It’s a proven process that has been used for years and refined. We have provided the training for three countries in the Caribbean, and I am putting together a proposal for about 18 additional countries. These countries experience disasters every year, not necessarily hurricanes but flooding and drought. We’ve trained hundreds of people in ICS, and the people are absolutely loving it.

TPO: How is the OWB organization structured?

Jenkinson: We have board members in Canada and the U.S., and we have an advisory council that consists of people from the Caribbean and other countries where we do work. Our volunteers are from Canada and the U.S.

TPO: How do you recruit volunteers, and how many are there now?

Jenkinson: We have about 70, and I recruit in the same way I do fundraising. I go to conferences. I speak online. I’m not a technical person. I’m there to make the connections, recruit volunteers, and raise money to send them places.

TPO: In the big picture, how would you assess the difference Operators Without Borders has made?

Jenkinson: By the middle of last year we had provided $1.5 million worth of services with a budget of about $60,000, with no paid staff, only volunteers. That doesn’t count the work we’ve done in the last year, which is the busiest year we’ve ever had. Sometimes I have to pinch myself about how far we’ve come.


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