Technical work at the heart of a humanitarian organization.


Christian Lenz, Deputy Water and Habitat Coordinator

Christian Lenz is a Deputy water and habitat coordinator at the ICRC. With a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, four years of work experience in the private sector and a strong motivation to put his engineering knowledge and skills at the service of people in need, he applied in 2016 and has been on four assignments since to Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.


1.      Did you have any doubts before leaving on your first assignment?

Back home it was difficult for me to imagine life as an ICRC delegate. I tried to find out as much as I could about it. I browsed the ICRC’s homepage, read widely and talked to former delegates, but doubts nevertheless remained. After all, I knew I was about to head for a conflict zone. I asked myself hundreds of questions: how will I react to living for protracted periods of time in confined conditions with colleagues that I did not choose to share my home with? How will I react to prolonged and extensive exposure to human suffering? How will I cope with tense situations, for example at a checkpoint? I remembered one conversation I had with a former ICRC delegate, who advised: “Wear a good pair of shoes, so you can walk well if you get abducted.” What would I do if I were abducted? And then, there was this one huge and nagging uncertainty: will my engineering know-how be sufficient to address the challenges ahead?

2.      Can you tell us about an engineering project you are proud of?

The tasks of an ICRC engineer in the field are extremely varied and differ from one assignment to the next. When you are working in an operational context, no two days are alike: you might visit a building site, follow up on financial matters in the office, meet authorities to discuss the details of a design proposal, deliver a training session in a prison, check on hygiene conditions in a cholera-treatment centre or support your medical colleagues in assessing a surgical hospital. What we do is mainly public-health engineering. Our activities are geared at preventing public-health hazards. We work a lot on basic infrastructure, to restore or improve access to essential services such as water and sanitation. We also support our colleagues in the protection team by carrying out joint visits to places of detention, with the ultimate goal of ensuring decent living conditions for detainees and preserving their dignity, and we work hand in hand with our health colleagues to improve the chain of care for the wounded and sick.


“no two days are alike: you might visit a building site, follow up on financial matters in the office, meet authorities to discuss the details of a design proposal, deliver a training session in a prison, check on hygiene conditions in a cholera-treatment centre or support your medical colleagues in assessing a surgical hospital.”


In 2017, I was working in Hodeidah, a city of around 600,000 inhabitants on the Red Sea coast of Yemen. The already fragile security situation gradually deteriorated as the southern frontline drew nearer. In expectation of a protracted crisis, we worked closely with the city’s water-and-sanitation authorities to get a better understanding of the state of the infrastructure and to stabilize it at an increased level of resilience. In this urban context, we followed a systemic approach aimed at making existing systems more resilient to possible future shocks. This means that we not only focused on ensuring that the infrastructure worked properly, but also saw to it that qualified people and management models were in place to operate and maintain it, and that consumables such as fuel for generators and chemicals for water treatment were available, as well as setting up a cost-recovery scheme so that the water systems could “pay for themselves”. We worked on all these aspects through a range of projects. I am proud to say that our support led to a clear stabilization of the key performance indicators of water-and-sanitation systems in Hodeidah, whereas unfortunately they continued to deteriorate in other parts of the country. Thus, thanks in large part to our efforts, 600,000 people living in Hodeidah had access to safe water and tens of thousands of cholera cases were prevented.

3.      How does your job at the ICRC differ from your previous work experience?

The ICRC, works in armed conflicts. This gives rise to limitations and problems that differ greatly from “normal” working environments. In addition to technical hurdles, we have to manoeuvre a range of other challenges: understanding the context we are working in, identifying the most pressing humanitarian needs, defining priorities and managing and caring for our staff in difficult conditions. In urgent situations, we are often called upon to make decisions based on limited information, in order to start developing solutions without wasting too much time, and then adapt them as we go along. This can be extremely stressful. In certain contexts, we might face massive logistical constraints that can significantly delay our work. This can lead to real frustration.

4.      What have you learned from your colleagues in the field?

Some experiences I have had in the field have certainly shaped my personality. Nowadays, I appreciate simple things, which I used to take for granted, much more. Through my work with the ICRC, I have met inspiring women and men – people on different levels who find themselves in the most difficult situations and do not follow their own interest but put their communities first: the director-general of a water board who tries to keep his water systems going in the most adverse of circumstances, a technician who risks his life to carry out an urgent repair, or a displaced woman who has fled with nothing but the clothes she is wearing, and nonetheless shares a little of her money with an even poorer person, or a local ICRC colleague who has dedicated his life to helping the most vulnerable in his own country.

I have learned to embrace diversity. My colleagues have different backgrounds, nationalities, values and ideas – a diversity that enables us to find creative ways to respond to humanitarian needs. I have learned to be very humble. I am a well-trained engineer, yet time and again the innovative and pragmatic solutions we found were put forward by my local colleagues or the people in need themselves, sometimes while their own families were in danger near the frontline.


“I have learned to embrace diversity. My colleagues have different backgrounds, nationalities, values and ideas – a diversity that enables us to find creative ways to respond to humanitarian needs. I have learned to be very humble.”


5.      How does the ICRC support you in your job?

As a member of the water-and-habitat team in the field, you enjoy a relatively high degree of freedom. The ICRC mainly works bttom-up, on the basis that staff on the ground know what is going on and what is needed most. It is important to understand the local context well, and our colleagues and management can support us in that.

For our technical work, we can rely on powerful backup mechanisms, both within the region where we are working and at headquarters. The ICRC is one of the oldest humanitarian organizations and has built up a wealth of expertise and know-how. We are supported in our field work by experienced Heads of Sector in Geneva, who can answer our questions or redirect very specific technical queries to thematic experts. As I gradually took on more responsibilities in my work, I always felt trusted and supported by my unit and coordinators. This has helped create a very positive working environment. There are various possibilities for individual professional development, such as technical training and individual development programmes supported by the ICRC. It gives significant added value to our field work if we can bring in new knowledge and ideas from outside the organization.

6.      Have you attended any training courses provided by the ICRC?

Before my first assignment, I took part in the Staff Integration Programme. I subsequently attended several leadership- and management-training courses, which helped me to better adapt my people-management experience to the humanitarian environment and to take on responsibilities as a deputy coordinator. I have furthermore taken part in training courses to develop my technical knowledge of water and sanitation in emergencies and the rehabilitation of wastewater-treatment plants. Some of these courses are held in collaboration with external partners, experts in their fields, such as the Swiss Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Switzerland. The ICRC also offers an individual development programme, which all employees can benefit from after working for the organization for at least two years. It enables us to independently study a topic of interest with financial support from the ICRC.

7.      In your view, what are the qualities that an ICRC engineer should have?

You need to bring with you a solid engineering background, consolidated by experience in your field of expertise. Most of what an ICRC engineer does is about leading the implementation of sometimes complex programmes and projects, requiring a capacity to align multiple stakeholders and manage a team of experts in fields you might not master yourself. At the same time, you need to be willing and able to perform high-quality engineering work outside your immediate scope of expertise and to learn new things every day. Our work is very technical, but it is part and parcel of a humanitarian operation. It is important never to lose sight of the humanitarian needs and suffering we are trying to alleviate and go the extra mile if necessary. As an ICRC engineer, you are in direct contact with the victims. You must be able to show empathy and patience. At the same time, and particularly in emergencies, you must be able to keep a calm and clear head, think analytically and make the right decisions quickly.

Your self-awareness, social skills and demonstrated people-management experience are of particular importance. You might find yourself in confined and difficult living and working conditions, together with colleagues you did not choose yourself. You must possess strong social skills, bring with you an inherent interest in people and always show respect for opinions, values and living styles that are different from your own. It is crucial to be open-minded and humble; you will have to accept certain things you are unable to comprehend. Lastly, you must have the capacity to manage your frustrations and continuously channel your energy into positive thinking and constructive approaches.

8.      What advice would you give to fellow engineers who are considering applying to the ICRC?

We are always looking for new colleagues to support us in our humanitarian field work! Be sure to find out as much as you can about our work before you apply.

Also ask yourself about your true motivation in applying for this job and check whether you are supported by your family and friends. You are likely to face tough situations, where it is your drive to alleviate human suffering that will make you accept difficult living conditions and inevitable frustrations. Make sure you are prepared to explain that motivation to your family and friends, and to recruiters.

I greatly enjoy the high relevance of our work. It is very fulfilling to be able to work hand-in-hand with people affected by conflict to help find meaningful solutions to their problems. It is a very powerful way of expressing our solidarity and sparks hope within the communities. When we work on urban water systems, our activities have a wide-ranging impact, as we may reach hundreds of thousands of people. Other projects, for instance in prisons, are much smaller in scale, but what we do can really change people’s daily lives for the better.