Muswell Hill engineer on working in disaster zones

Dame Jo da Silva

Dame Jo da Silva - Credit: Arup

"Engineers are the doctors of the world" – so says a Muswell Hill woman who has worked for more than 30 years in humanitarian relief and international development.

Dame Jo da Silva is global director of sustainable development at the company Arup, working on challenges around the climate emergency.

On this week's Ham&High Podcast she speaks about the satisfaction of working in engineering and her choices on the BBC's Desert Island Discs.

She discussed the challenges of working in the most difficult circumstances – speaking before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the terrible scenes that have followed.

Born in 1967 in Washington DC, Dame Jo studied engineering at Trinity College Cambridge and already had a love of travelling when she joined Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief (RedR) and underwent training for work on the ground. 

Her first call-out was supporting refugee camps after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. 

She said: “I came back to my desk one day and there was a Post-it Note on my phone saying 'Call RedR', and I called RedR and they said: 'Could you go to Tanzania next week to go and help in the refugee camps there?'"

She said her immediate reaction was terror: "I'd done all this training, but I was being put on the spot and it was a big leap of faith in the organisation. I thought: if they think that I can do this then I can do this. They know what they're talking about.

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"They wouldn't have asked me if they didn't think I was the right person to do the job."   

She found herself working on the border between Tanzania and Rwanda, which tens of thousands of refugees crossed every day, working as a camp engineer.  

"I spent the next three months building latrines, fixing the roads, building warehouses – putting in the infrastructure that's needed to save lives," she said.

Dame Jo would go on to work on the ground in Central America after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Sri Lanka after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. 

“Much of my work now is centred on climate change, both the urgent need to decarbonise and the reality that the weather is changing rapidly and we're experiencing the impacts of climate change, whether it's flooding or bushfires, or heat waves."   

She continued: “Much of the focus, and rightly, is on the need to very rapidly transition away from fossil fuels – away from coal, away from oil – and we need to get to clean gas as a transition fuel. That's something that needs to happen rapidly over the next decade, so that we're relying on renewable energy.   

“What people don't realise is that there's a balance to be struck between the speed at which we can create renewable energy, and the speed that we can abandoned fossil fuels, and potentially there's a gap between those two. So we also need to change our habits as individuals and consume less energy, and that's a behavioural shift in society generally that is overlooked.”    

Dame Jo da Silva

Dame Jo da Silva - Credit: Arup

The problem-solving of engineering was clearly a draw.  

"I want to do something that's useful and contributes to society, and I think engineers are the doctors of the world in a way. We create the stage set on which life plays out, is what I always say.  

“You know we can't do without water systems, without roads, without buildings, we rely on them. Every day we take them for granted and there are a lot of engineers in the background, people don't even think about...  

“For instance, during Covid we all took for granted that we could work at home – that we would have electricity, that we would have water. But, actually, there was some very serious thinking going on within the energy companies and the water companies, thinking about how can we make sure  that supply is continuous, and so there were engineers who were living in hotels for shifts of six weeks at a time to make sure that they didn't get Covid so that they could continue to run the power stations that we rely on.” 

To hear the full interview, listen and subscribe for free to the full podcast via https://podfollow.com/hamhigh/. You'll also be able to find interviews with previous guests including Sir Keir Starmer, Michelle Collins and Dame Esther Rantzen.

The Ham&High Podcast

The Ham&High Podcast - Credit: Archant