A retired Fingal County Council engineer and veteran humanitarian is back in the field with aid agency Concern, helping some of the millions of people displaced by war. PJ Howell, who will be 63 in May and who retired from the local authority in 2013 after 30 years of service, is using his engineering skills and experience to provide clean drinking water to thousands of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. “I was asked if I would be available to help and I said ‘yes’, because this is the greatest humanitarian disaster in the world today. These people need help and they need clean drinking water, which is what the programme I’m involved with is helping to provide,” said the water services engineer, who lives in Dublin but is originally from Kellystown near Drogheda, Co Louth.

Engineering skills

It is over 30 years since Howell worked overseas with Concern Worldwide, Ireland’s largest humanitarian aid organisation, in 1981 when he was part of Concern’s emergency team responding to devastating famine in Karamoja, Uganda. “When I qualified as a civil engineer in 1974, I went to Bangladesh with Concern as a volunteer and was there for 18 months. [caption id="attachment_28519" align="alignright" width="300"]PJ Howell in Lebanon with refugees PJ Howell in Lebanon with refugees[/caption] “Then subsequently I worked in Uganda as a volunteer for six months when there was a severe famine in Karamoja in 1981. I was involved with rehabilitation of the water bore holes, which were all over Karamoja, but in severe disrepair so we had crews who repaired them so that thousands of women did not have to walk vast distances each day to collect water from streams and shallow wells that would often dry up.” Howell continued to use his skills and expertise to save the lives of those living in extreme poverty and worked alongside renowned humanitarian and former Concern chief executive, the late Fr Aengus Finucane. He was elected to the Council of Concern in 1982 – and remained a member until 2009 – and he was its chairperson from 1991 to 1995. “During those years I was working in the county council and I used my holidays each year to visit a number of Concern fields – such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Zaire in 1994, where thousands of people had fled after the genocide in Rwanda,” he said. He revisited Bangladesh following his retirement in 2013, and was struck by the very significant advances made by both the country and Concern’s programme there, some 40 years since he had first worked there. He also chaired a working group about two years ago that looked at the future of volunteering with Concern.

Water, sanitation and hygiene programme

Howell is now Concern’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programme manager, based in Halba in the Akkar district in Lebanon. His work not only provides water people can drink, but prevents disease and further devastation in a region were so many are destitute. PJ Howell in Lebanon 3He explained that they are working on a reservoir that provides water to a town with a population of over 12,000 people – including Syrian refugees – so that the Lebanese authorities running it can cope with the increasing surge in new arrivals. “We’re working with the municipalities to improve the overall performance of the water supply scheme that’s part of a larger existing water supply scheme for the town. When it’s finished in six months’ time, it will be handed over to the local municipality who will manage it.” In places where no clean tap water is available, Concern provides people with water from tankers that are filled and driven to each area in need. They are also beginning to work on a new prototype bioenergy-powered wastewater treatment unit that is made in Britain and can be shipped and dropped into any refugee camp. Each of these mobile wastewater treatment units is self-fuelled by the dried solids left behind from treated sewage water. Howell, who will be working on the project for three months, said his experience as director of services and water services management with Fingal County Council has helped significantly in dealing with the local Lebanese authorities. Lebanon, a landmass smaller than Northern Ireland, is home to over one million Syrian refugees, which is 25% of its total population. Concern has been working in Lebanon since mid-2013 implementing shelter, WASH, protection, education and livelihoods programmes, targeting vulnerable refugees from Syria, but also Lebanese host communities and Palestinians reaching over 140,000 beneficiaries in 2015. To donate to or volunteer for Concern, please log onto website www.concern.net or call 1850 410 510.