Water and sanitation specialist Jeanne Vidal: Life on assignment

10 Jul 2023

Jeanne Vidal has worked as a water and sanitation logistician and a logistics team leader on seven assignments with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). She has worked on projects in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and most recently Sierra Leone. She spoke to us about her work overseas and what the role of a water and sanitation logistician (or 'watsan’) involves. 

 Why did you decide to start working with MSF?  

I've always taken an interest in humanitarian and development work, since my engineering studies. I always wanted to help those who are in need. There was a volunteer opportunity that I was interested in at Auckland University to go to Vanuatu and rebuild pipes for a community, however, I was not able to go due to funding.

I graduated from engineering, spent five years in a consulting firm and decided to pursue development and humanitarian work again. I quit my consulting job and applied to different humanitarian agencies including MSF.


How do you juggle MSF assignments and your regular work life?

Initially I quit my full-time job as a civil and environmental consultant so that I could pursue a career with MSF, so I didn't have to juggle. But now that I am back in the workforce in New Zealand, I try to time my MSF assignments when we are not so busy at work.  


Even though MSF is a medical organisation, logisticians are essential in any MSF project. How would you describe the role of a logistician, and why is the work so essential?  

There are a few different types of logisticians, I am a water and  sanitation logistician. In my role, we ensure that the hospitals, refugee camps and villages that MSF supports have clean water, adequate sanitation and appropriate waste management and hygiene (‘WASH’ facilities).  

This role ensures that treatment provided to the patients is followed up with access to adequate WASH facilities. It involves collaborating with the medical team on infection control and patient flow in epidemic situations.

Another part of being a watsan is being involved in construction programs. A lot of the professionals in this role have a civil and environmental background. 


As water and sanitation specialists, we ensure that the hospitals, refugee camps and villages that we work in have clean water, adequate sanitation, and appropriate waste management and hygiene.

Jeanne Vidal
Water and sanitation specialist

Can you tell me about one of the best assignments you’ve done with MSF and why?

Afghanistan would be my best assignment. I spent 13 months there and it was my longest assignment.  My role consisted of different responsibilities; from being a water and sanitation technical referent between Lashkargah and Kandahar, managing a CCHF (Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever) facility alongside a nurse, to writing letters to authorities seeking permission for work that we would like to implement in our hospital.  

It was very dynamic, I loved it. Not just with the role, but I gained respect for the people and their culture. I remember hyperventilating at the airport in Dubai before catching my flight to Kabul at the beginning of my assignment. But what I witnessed living and working in the country was different. I saw very resilient and intelligent people, who were trying to rebuild a good life for their people and country.


What are some of the learnings you’ve gleaned from being on assignment with MSF?

Professionally, I've learnt a lot technically and how to negotiate with stakeholders. Personally, I learnt how to be resilient, patient, and respectful of others' beliefs and cultures.  


Would you recommend working with MSF to your colleagues and friends?  

Yes, of course.  If they have the drive to be thrown in the deep end (meaning bush style camping during emergencies) and genuinely making a difference to others, then why not! 😊



Jeanne with the construction team. Credit: Jeanne Vidal