Peter (right) and a colleague during a field monitoring visit in northern Uganda. Photo: IOM

Humanitarian Emergencies are Hard but the Work is Worth it – IOM Uganda Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Engineer

Uganda - Peter Nzabanita is a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Specialist with IOM, the UN Migration Agency, in Uganda. A father of a boy and two little girls, Peter has had to get used to being away from his family for long periods of time while overseeing work in Uganda’s refugee settlements hundreds of kilometres from their home. Yet, despite the pressure of working in the field, this engineer is more satisfied with his work, compared to a job in a more “stable” environment. 

Before joining IOM in 2016, I worked with a development-focused organization, which, at some point, secured funding to work in a refugee settlement. Although this is when I began working with refugees, they had already been part of my life for some time.

I come from a part of Uganda that was along a route for Rwandan refugees. Growing up, I would see them come; fleeing violence – and at some point my family was also displaced. As a refugee, you are forced to move when you are not ready and you leave with nothing. 

It was 2014 when I started working with the vulnerable groups like persons with disabilities and the elderly – a career path that eventually brought me to IOM.

For me, there is nothing more fulfilling than assisting someone in need; giving them hope, helping put a smile back on their face and becoming their friend. I am grateful that I can do this all with IOM.

Peter in his IOM Uganda office.

My typical day depends on where I am. As a national WASH specialist, I am based at the head office in Kampala but often spend time in the refugee settlements in northwestern and southwestern Uganda.

When I am at head office, I usually come in around 7:00am or 7:30am and attend to urgent office work such as reports and emails. From around 8:00am, I am busy attending various meetings with office colleagues or partners from civil society, the Ugandan Government or other UN agencies. In between the meetings, I have to find time to read, write or reply to emails, letters, reports and project proposals; phone field colleagues and implementing partners to discuss project work, and do a whole range of other coordination tasks.

The office officially closes at 5:30pm and I try to leave around that time so that I can pick my kids up from school. But I usually take my laptop with me, so that I can do some work at home later in the evening.

When I am in the field, I do more or less the same things, only this time at the field level. I join colleagues and implementing partners to inspect or kick-start work such as sanitation and water construction sites. In the evenings, my hotel becomes the office, with meetings and work on my computer until about midnight when I retire to bed.

An example of a recent intervention I was involved in was a 2018 United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) project for new Congolese arrivals in western Uganda, which has just ended. Through the project, IOM and partners stopped a serious cholera outbreak in Kyangwali refugee settlement.

Unfortunately, we lost several lives to the disease but the situation could have been much worse without the intervention. What happened was that there was a sudden influx of Congolese refugees into Uganda. Sanitation facilities were badly needed and clean water was a challenge. Open defecation was the norm and unfortunately upstream from their nearest existing water stream. And often in such circumstances, diseases like cholera become almost inevitable.

With the CERF funding, we prioritized life-saving activities – like sensitization. We identified people with influence in the community, especially faith leaders, and worked with them to get out messages on the dangers of cholera. We also provided quick solutions such as aqua tabs to make sure that we managed the contamination of the water. We supported immediate latrine construction and the evacuation of refugees from remote fishing villages where aid workers could not reach them.

One of the people we helped evacuation, who I particularly remember, was a baby about one week old. I was pleased we were able to move this little one with its family, as you can imagine where it was born there were no health care facilities.

Life in a humanitarian environment can be challenging. Sometimes you are in remote areas and you cannot communicate with your head office or your family; you cannot find decent accommodation; you drive long journeys on bad roads; you work long hours; and sometimes you go hungry because you are too busy to think about yourself. But the hardest part was when I saw people dying of cholera, and the poor, vulnerable people carrying their loved ones for burial. You are left wondering if you could have done more to stop that death.

All this takes a toll on you. When the response to help the DR Congo refugees started, I returned to office after about three weeks in the field and everyone was like “are you sick?” or “Do you have cholera or what?” Apparently I had lost a lot of weight. It takes a toll on your personal life. I have missed both my wife and daughters’ birthdays. I am unable to do homework with my six-year-old son.

But still, I find emergency work very rewarding. Despite the challenges, it is very fulfilling to join a fight – for instance against an outbreak like cholera – and to win it!


Mary-Sanyu Osire from IOM Uganda conducted this interview with Peter in the lead up to World Humanitarian Day, 19 August 2018.

Humanitarian workers are #notatarget