Sean Moran's Red Cross assignment in Nigeria

Ultimately 36-year-old Glenbrook engineering consultant Sean Moran hopes to be on the emergency call list for the Red Cross's disaster response unit world-wide. A tsunami hits, a war breaks out, he will be one of the first on the ground to help out - rebuilding from the ruins.

"I always wanted to work in disaster response," he tells Review magazine. "I'm looking to be on call and go out in 24 hours with their surge disaster crisis team."

He recently returned from the city of Jos in Nigeria, where communities are regularly displaced due to armed conflict, and where accessing clean water is often difficult. His 18 month assignment involved heading water and shelter related operations with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in central and northern areas of Nigeria.

As engineering lead for central Nigeria, he had to manage a complex operation getting life-saving medical supplies to hospitals in Jos, that were running out of dressing kits and other vital equipment while the city was under siege.

It wasn't unusual for him to be forced to stay in the compound for days at a time, while "the constant chatter of AK47s was outside ... you didn't really want to be driving around".

"We had pretty severe restrictions about what we could and couldn't do," Mr Moran said.

One time he was out shopping for groceries and heard volleys of gunfire nearby, so rushed back.

"We were living in a compound all the time. Once for five-and-a-half days I was unable to leave."

We were living in a compound all the time and sometimes you couldn't go out at all. Once for five-and-a-half days I was unable to leave

He said in a country about the same size as NSW, years of drought means water is scarce and tension is increasing. There are more than 200 million people in Nigeria, compared with eight million in NSW. Differences are often settled with guns. A drive from Sydney to Dubbo, that would take six hours in Australia, takes three days in Nigeria because of river crossings, armed checkpoints and security risks.

Mr Moran said there was "ongoing armed conflict particularly in the north-east between government and opposition armed groups, putting massive strains on the country and battles for water, farming and grazing land".

Mr Moran said the ICRC steps in to help existing aid services rebuild homes and find clean water, which could be as far as one hundred metres below the ground.

He lost count of the water points and toilet facilities they built, which ensured cholera was avoided, although there were many deadly diarrhoea outbreaks.

"It was a very real threat - the outbreak of disease," he said.

"Sometimes there were tens of thousands of displaced people overnight - running from their homes with whatever they were sleeping in ... one [mass of people] ending up living in a primary school with one hand pump on a bore hole and a handful of toilets and that's where we would come in.

"It's pretty good when you have seen people wait in line for hours to use a very slow hand pump or fetching water from a dam, a series of puddles or a polluted creek, then come back a few months later seeing people, especially kids and women, being able to access clean, running water.

Sean Moran at Glenbrook Lagoon

Sean Moran at Glenbrook Lagoon

"It wasn't just in camps, but also helping to restore water to their communities when they went back when it was safe, and donating materials for rebuilding of their homes."

Mr Moran's father worked for the Federal government in the 1990s in Cambodia, Vietnam and Kazakhstan and often returned with incredible tales. That, coupled with being in Thailand after the Boxing Day 2014 tsunami "cemented" his desire to work in humanitarian aid.

"Dad would be gone for a couple of months at a time and would return with these cool stories," he said.

"I started as an engineer thinking of building bridges, structural engineering, then I returned from Thailand and shifted to focus on the humanitarian side. It's making that very immediate impact on people's lives."

He said the Red Cross's approach to supporting each human regardless of race or religion fitted strongly with his own ethos.

"I really feel very strongly about that ... every human's right to food and health care, especially when they are already vulnerable and then have to leave their home."

Mr Moran said the Red Cross offered excellent health and psycho-social support for staff and he always received calls a day or two after a conflict, to check on his welfare.

And while his African war zone experience had been "a bit confronting," it had also confirmed "how fortunate we are". He's looking forward to Christmas with family in Glenbrook and reassessing his options for another stint overseas.

"It does take some getting used to coming back to here - especially our access to nature and safety."

"That's the nature of the work," he said. "I think I've just always had a bent for sort of helping people and also a lot of excitement [about the humanitarian work] and this is able to combine the two professionally."

NIGERIA at a glance

  • From January to June 2019, the ICRC operations saw 640,000 people receive food aid and essential household items
  • 258,000 accessed health care across 20 ICRC-supported hospital and health clinics
  • 37,850 children under five received vaccines
  • 296 water pointswere constructed or rehabilitated for displaced people and residents
  • 1,600 temporary shelterswere built for newly displaced people
  • 21,000 are being looked for by the ICRC following tracing requests made by families.