Interview with Luca Palazzotto, WASH Technical Lead at Relief International

Interview with Luca Palazzotto, WASH Technical Lead at Relief International

How is Relief International involved in the humanitarian aid and development sector? 

Relief International (RI) specializes in fragile settings, responding to natural disasters, humanitarian emergencies and chronic poverty. Funded by grants from the United States, the European Union and the international community, RI works in 20 countries between Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

With legal standing both in the United States as a not-for-profit organization and in the United Kingdom as a registered Charity, Relief International has a global board of directors who bring an informed perspective to the communities we serve.

What are the key initiatives being implemented by Relief International?

Relief International serves more than 4 million refugees and displaced people. It also works in four core sectors: health, wash, education and economic opportunity. We apply a systems approach to all of our work – building capacity and aiming at long-term impact for both our humanitarian aid initiatives and our development programming.

We seamlessly blend humanitarian and development efforts so every program resolves immediate issues while laying the groundwork for long-term impact.

Our signature approach — which we call the RI Way — emphasizes local participation, an integration of services, strategic partnerships, and a focus on civic skills. In this way, we empower communities to find, design and implement the solutions that work for them — and for generations to come.

Luca, what does your position at Relief International entail?

I am in charge of the WASH sector. In this role I drive the process to reconcile RI’s humanitarian assistance activities with a long-term view. This entails the adoption of a systems approach in our WASH programs, and in particular in those protracted crises that require sustained support for extended periods of time. An important part of my work is to provide technical guidance and facilitate learning within the organization while supporting the development of the global WASH portfolio.

What initiatives/programmes/projects are you involved in?

Among the main important initiatives, I am working to incorporate greater technical innovation in WASH programs to achieve better outcomes. This includes the introduction of remote monitoring of water sources, adoption of remote sensing, solar-powered pumps and treatment systems, and other technical solutions that increase the sustainability of RI’s humanitarian interventions.

In addition, I am leading an operational research project that leverages the organizational knowledge of highly conflictual contexts to deepen the understanding of the nexus between water and conflict and to help frame a more adequate humanitarian response to avoid exacerbating the underlying causes of the conflicts.

What are your main priorities for 2017/2018?

The first is to focus on protracted crises, where the traditional humanitarian approach fails inevitably and humanitarians have to start playing a different role.

The increasing scale and complexity of the present crises and their level of impact require the recognition that crises are both a humanitarian and a development challenge.

It is the responsibility of each humanitarian and development actor to work on a new framework of intervention. As part of my work, I will strongly advocate for the creation of appropriate mechanisms to adequately face the present challenges and to address the root causes of natural or man-made disasters.

What will your speaker panel at the Global Disaster Relief & Development Summit address and why is it important for those attending to engage in this topic?

I will moderate the panel on ‘Best Practice and Innovation in WASH’ scheduled for 2:00pm on September 7th. The panel will touch the most critical aspects of WASH interventions, from the challenges to work in remote areas and conflict zones, to technological innovations and new approaches that have the potential to dramatically change the way we deliver WASH interventions.

What are some of the latest trends you see in disaster response and disaster resilience?

Technology is playing more and more of a central role in the response phase, in particular with the introduction of mobile technologies, drones and remote sensing that help to acquire data, improve the capacity to rapidly assess the situation, and provide adequate and timely support.

Building resilience, on the other hand, still represents a major challenge. The financial sustainability of water infrastructures, for example, is strictly related to the level of development of the context. Improving resilience requires a deep understanding of the system and the need to improve governance, which is a long term process rarely supported by adequate funding and duration of the projects, especially in fragile settings.

What are the lessons learned related to those mentioned above?

In most fragile contexts a disaster is often followed by a very long and slow recovery. Building resilience requires a switch from humanitarian aid to development along the way. The segregation of the two sectors make this transition very difficult if not impossible: there is a clear need to develop multi-year mechanisms to enable the transition from one phase to the next. All actors, on both sides of the fence, are equally responsible to create the space for and adjust to a new way of working.

What is your impression of the forthcoming Global Disaster Relief & Development Summit?

The agenda covers the most critical aspects of both humanitarian and development sectors in the current times. The format is well designed and gives space to meaningful discussions while keeping the forum focused on very specific topics. In addition to this, the high level of the speakers will ensure the quality of the discussion and the success of the event.

RI puts great emphasis on technology and innovation and the organization is eager to be part of such initiatives to facilitate the sharing and learning of each other’s expertise. Personally, I think the event will be a great opportunity to contribute to the progress of the discussions on topics that I consider pivotal on the future development of the industry.

To summarise, what is the key learning that you’d like to share with the AIDF audience prior to the Summit?

Many humanitarian crises have become recurrent or chronical and the implications for the WASH sector are many. The progressive urbanization of the world’s growing population and the rising of per capita water consumption are putting a strain on the balance between human activities and adequate access to the resource is becoming one of the underlying causes of many conflicts and disasters across the globe.

The boundary between humanitarian and development aid has become very blurred, and the separation between the two sectors is outdated: we have to be open to change and able to anticipate the implications for our sector.

For more information about the Global Disaster Relief and Development Summit 2017, visit; for all inquiries, please email Alina O’Keeffe at

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