Water specialist Oliver helps to save lives in The Congo

A Water and Sanitation specialist from Mylerstown, Clonmel has been working as a volunteer with Médecins Sans Frontières in the Democratic Republic of Congo since last September.

A Water and Sanitation specialist from Mylerstown, Clonmel has been working as a volunteer with Médecins Sans Frontières in the Democratic Republic of Congo since last September.

Oliver McGrath previously worked with South Tipp County Council as an Environmental Technician. Working in an eastern province of The Congo, he’s responsible for ensuring that the water supply is safe and that sanitation facilities are regulated so that people avoid cholera and a range of water-born diseases.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders was founded by doctors and journalists in 1971. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 and is now a worldwide movement with offices in 19 countries and an international co-ordination office in Geneva, Switzerland.

A past pupil of Powerstown National School and Clonmel High School, Oliver is the son of the late Kathleen and Denis McGrath. The following is his account of spending St. Patrick’s Day in The Congo -

“If I were back home in Ireland on Saturday (St. Patrick’s Day) I’d be in the pub watching the Six Nations game between Ireland and England, no doubt, as a participant of a very animated crowd. Here, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) it will be a much quieter affair. There will be no rugby, and it will probably be a while before I find out which team won!

I’m the only expat in this one remote project in the Kivus, in eastern DRC with Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

So on St. Paddy’s Day I’ll probably be telling fellow Congolese staff about our national day over dinner or a drink – a local Primus beer rather than Guinness. I’ll tell them how a Welsh slave returned to spread the good news and banished paganism from the land without resorting to spear tackling anyone! Though I might have some difficulty explaining how this got translated into spending the weekend in the pub, I think the laughs and making merry will be easily understood.

While it’ll be beer on most people’s lips back home on St. Patrick’s Day, for me the focus will be on water. A cholera epidemic has been sweeping parts of the country since last year with more than 500,000 people affected by the disease. As a water and sanitation specialist (watsan), my main role is to help people get safe water and proper sanitation facilities to prevent cholera, along with other water-borne diseases such as typhoid, diarrhoea and some types of hepatitis. I’m involved in stopping the problem at its source.

My St Paddy’s Day will look like any other day here in the Congo – though I don’t really have an average day. I might be inspecting drinking water points along the river Ruzizi, Lake Tanganika and tributaries. Inspection takes a lot of time when cholera is the problem. We treat the water that people have taken from these sources before they carry it home in jerry cans for drinking, cooking and washing – as I said, stopping the problem at source.

Other days I might be leading an exploration team of staff into the hinterlands of this stunning, green and very fertile terrain. Once, I set off for a week with five others across Katanga province in order to make sure the route was safe and to set up a new base for our vaccination campaign. We travelled 1,400 kilometres (875 miles) across the worst roads I have ever seen with a truck full of equipment, a jeep and just enough cash to keep us going. Recent rains had turned the roads to swamps. However the team - a well-chosen mixture of brawn and brain – ensured that we successfully traversed the rivers, fallen trees and dodgy bridges. Each day, we had to make sure we got to the next big town, as staying in the bush was potentially a hazardous option.

I like that MSF get into the difficult to reach places. They have been working in this country since 1981, filling healthcare gaps where no infrastructure has been set up. A lot of people in The Congo must go without clean water, sanitation and healthcare, especially during times of conflict and hence they lead difficult lives. But you could do anything here if things were stable. The country has it all. It’s a very mineral-rich land in the so-called developing world, except that The Congo does not seem to be developing fast enough for its own people, in my opinion.

When I came to work for MSF I wanted to reach those places and help to enable people to have access to clean drinking water and therefore a better quality of living. I also wanted to put my skills acquired over the years to good use in areas were the need is great. MSF have the medical and logistical strength to get into the “hard” spots and stay where many non-governmental organisations can’t.

While my Paddy’s day might not be what I’m used to, the satisfaction of the job – knowing I’m helping people avoid deadly diseases – more than makes up for not having the parades, the rugby and the beer.

And besides, I can rest assured that I’ll wake up the following day feeling fresher than I normally would”.