Chris French manages GHD’s Water Technology Group in the Melbourne office. As a Principal Water Engineer and Project Director, Chris has led or contributed to a wide range of water, sanitation and hydropower projects in Australia, China, Lao PDR and Vietnam. Lindsey Beck recently interviewed Chris to discuss water and its role in a cleanleap.
Lindsey: From your experience of years overseas working for a big water consultancy, what do you think are the biggest opportunities for water to contribute to a cleanleap?
Chris: I think in urban water, when we're talking about water supply sanitation and drainage, the biggest opportunity is integrated planning.
Lindsey: Why is that?
Chris: Typically, in a developing context, your first issue is providing clean water. Your second issue is getting rid of sewage and storm water, typically together in a developing context. You're trying to get safe water for public health, and then you're trying to get rid of the waste for flooding risk and also public health. They're often different parts of government so they are often thought about separately. Getting them thought about in an integrated way is a critical thing for developing countries, particularly in the urban context.
Lindsey: If those are the opportunities, then what do you think are the biggest barriers to the cleanleap? If there was something that we could remove that would make things a lot easier in order to advance this agenda, what do you think that would be?
Chris: It's a tricky question. I think in every setting there's the contextual framework of that setting. I'm not trying to say fancy words, there, but you have to understand why things happen in one country in one way and then look at that particular thing. We can't say, "This is the barrier," or "That's the barrier." So for me the key is that you have to go and spend some time and understand the local context before you can do anything useful. It can't be imposed or offered from afar. It has to be offered with respect and with support locally to be in any way effective.
Lindsey: On the question of respect, how do you think people who want to operate in that developing space, can demonstrate that in a meaningful way?
Chris: By a lot of small things. Spend time there. Learn the language. Learn the culture. Learn the institutional arrangements in the setting. Treat people with respect. Actually learn how to interact appropriately. Expect to learn as much as you are teaching. Don't think that you're the one providing the advice. You're going there to help, if they want help. Not because you've got better answers than they do. It's a whole lot of little things.
Lindsey: What types of approaches or technologies or ways of learning have you seen in the developing context that you think we can benefit from here in Australia? Were there belief systems, or ways of thinking about problems or ways of working together, or ways to engage in community that you felt were valuable or not valuable?
Chris: Yes, definitely. How to deal with people, how to engage with people that you don't have any authority over, but you have to bring with you to get anything done. There's much more of a village focus. Even in the center of Vietnam and the capital, you live in a village, and the village chief has to sign off on stuff and you're part of the village. That adds an element of community and working together, that you don't get so much of in a modern Western country, where it's less communal. We could certainly learn from that. If you think about how we work together, and if you think about integrative water management, that's a lot about working together, and thinking about problems, and solving them at different scales.