Off to Afghanistan: taking risks for water

These days, Kevin Rumsey is relishing his stroll to work because, in less than a week, walking more than 100 metres could be deadly.

These days, Kevin Rumsey is relishing his stroll to work because, in less than a week, walking more than 100 metres could be deadly.

The 45-year-old Yukoner is leaving for Afghanistan on Saturday to run a water, sanitation and hygiene program in the slums outside Kabul.

“And I won’t be allowed to walk more than 100 metres, because of security,” he said.

But walking is the least of his worries.

The water strategist for Indian and Northern Affairs is afraid of dying, or getting kidnapped.

“I will be working in the same area where (CBC reporter) Mellissa Fung was kidnapped,” said Rumsey, who’s having difficulty saying goodbye to his family.

The newly married father of two was supposed to be spending Christmas in Mexico with his wife’s folks.

But three and a half weeks ago, at 6 a.m., Rumsey got a call from Paris.

It was Action Contre La Faim International offering Rumsey the water co-ordinator position in Afghanistan.

“I told them I needed to call them back,” he said.

An hour later, he’d accepted the posting.

Although the call came out of the blue, Rumsey was familiar with Action Contre La Faim.

Nine months ago, he’d undergone a grueling interview process in hopes of working with the organization, which labours in 40 countries around the world dealing with malnutrition in conflict and post-disaster zones.

With a foot in the door, Rumsey knew he’d eventually be getting a call, but he didn’t know where, or when he’d be placed.

“It just happened to be Afghanistan,” he said, sipping a chai latte at Baked on Wednesday afternoon.

“Everything’s going to be different,” he said.

“So, I’m savouring everything — my relations with people, food, this chai I’m drinking.”

Rumsey is only taking two backpacks on his year-long posting.

“Many people don’t realize this, but it gets cold in Afghanistan in the winter,” he said.

“It can get down to minus 25.”

Rumsey has a good winter coat, but was told not to bring it.

“It’s the wrong colour,” he said, pointing out the orange sleeves.

“As a foreigner I’ll stand out enough without wearing an orange coat.”

Rumsey will be living in an affluent neighbourhood surrounded by ex-pats, embassies and the United Nations.

The area’s “a bit of a target,” he said.

“And the frequency of attacks there has ramped up recently.”

Rumsey will have a driver, and be shuttled from one secure area to another.

“And there will be diversions,” he said.

“We will mix up drivers and try not to take the same routes to work every day.”

Everyone’s worried, said Rumsey.

His wife is “shell-shocked;” his boss cried, and saying goodbye to his daughters has been very hard.

“It’s starting to sink in,” he said.

“But I have to go — it’s a calling.”

Rumsey’s brother died at 23, of alcohol poisoning.

“He was larger than life, and then he was gone,” he said.

“It was like, ‘Holy shit, life is short — you’ve got to go live it.’”

And it’s a passion for water that has opened the floodgates for Rumsey.

As a young man, he set out to be a forest ranger, “like Smokey Bear.”

But then he spent a summer with a woman who was a park ranger, and she changed his life.

“She said, ‘Don’t go into forestry, it’s boring, go to Lethbridge (Alberta), and study water management.”

Now, 22 years later, Rumsey’s still immersed in hydrology.

With several Afghans working under him, he will be setting up safe-water stations, toilets, and teaching people basic hygiene on the outskirts of Kabul.

“Almost all the disease in the world could be reduced by simply washing your hands,” he said.

Although he’s already travelled to Kenya and India with Rotary International to work on small water projects, and did similar work in Indonesia following the tsunami in 2004, Rumsey has never faced the risks he will in Afghanistan.

“I feel really strongly that relative risk shouldn’t scare you from doing what you need to,” he said.

Rumsey is as mentally prepared as possible, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to watch people die.

“There are going to be people starving,” he said, mentioning the global food crisis.

“And people are going to freeze and die of diseases and I’m going to see it.”

Rumsey chose to work with Action Contre La Faim because of its “bottom-up approach.”

“I want to help people help themselves,” he said.

It’s important to ask the people that live in the country what they need, rather than directing traffic, added Rumsey.

For 50 years, big NGOs have been going into countries and not engaging with the community, and they’ve spent trillions of dollars, he said.

They build things like wells, but don’t bother to train anyone or give them the proper tools.

“And now there are hundreds of wells all over the world that are toast because they didn’t bother to train or engage people.”

Rumsey’s approach is to listen to the locals and try and help when he can.

“And I try and empower the women,” he said.

“Because if women are the water managers, then things get done.

“But the huge challenge is that men often want to dominate and take over, and then things get messy.”

Action Contre La Faim is not faith-based, added Rumsey.

“We just want to keep people alive.”

It’s not political either.

In fact, Rumsey is forbidden to talk politics or religion while he’s in Afghanistan.

The most controversial thing he plans on doing is buying beer.

“I’ll have to go to the Chinese grocery for contraband beer,” he said with a laugh.

Contact Genesee Keevil at