Both the challenges and the rewards can be overwhelming when working in the developing world.
Sandra Cointreau has taken on challenges both personal and global while navigating through four decades working as an engineer specializing in solid waste.
Cointreau, the keynote speaker at the 2012 Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) WasteCon event, held in August, says she was the only female engineering student among 1,000 during her late 1960s college years and, upon entering the workforce, encountered a male-to-female ratio in civil engineering of approximately 10,000-to-1.
While there were times on the college campus when she felt discouraged (sometimes by the remarks of faculty members), she said of her male colleagues in the workplace, “They couldn’t have been more supportive.”
While working for firms such as Malcolm-Pirnie and Arthur D. Little, she became involved in solid waste projects, including developing a design for the remediation of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado that was chosen from among numerous submissions.
Cointreau said that when she found her career becoming static and predictable, she made the decision to “wander off to developing countries, where there was nothing predictable—and there still isn’t.”
She characterized the countries on the lowest rung (by per capita income) of the developing world as only disposing of 5 percent of their solid waste in sanitary landfills or proper recycling facilities. These countries, Cointreau noted, are largely in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia
She added, “Some of the work has been dangerous,” saying that she has often worked in war-zones are post-combat regions, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Kosovo.
In Iraq, two weeks after the 2003 war ended, according to Cointreau, she was in Basra and “mobilized about 25 Iraqi engineers [to buy] spare parts and tools and then mobilized thousands more Iraqis to make the repairs.” The result, she said, was “in six months, we were shipping electricity from Basra to Baghdad.”
Although dangerous, the work was gratifying, Cointreau said. “I had thousands of marsh Arabs who were told by their sheikhs to look after me and protect me because of the work I was doing.”
She praised SWANA for “making solid waste an esteemed and respected profession” in North America and says she encourages the people she works with in other countries to form similar professional organizations.
Cointreau also urged audience members to consider the possibilities of helping in the developing world. “My hope is that more of you will help in developing countries, and encourage your children to work there. It’s easy to stay here and be comfortable, but there is much to be done there.”
She singled out Americans as uniquely qualified in such outreach work. “Americans are so honest and have such a great ethical framework,” said Cointreau. “Without Americans going to the 80 percent of the world that needs [us], it’s not going to get done,” she stated.
The 2012 SWANA WasteCon event was held Aug. 14-16 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md.