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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wars, Water and Well-Being

When Carel de Rooy first agreed to work for UNICEF more than 25 years ago, he had little idea what he was in for.

"Someone from UNICEF had found my application, called me to say I had the right language skills, and I found myself agreeing to a post in Equatorial Guinea. After I hung up I had to get an atlas and look up where the hell it was," joked the 55-year-old Brazilian, now the UNICEF representative for Russia and Belarus.

De Rooy -- who speaks English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch -- was a geology student at the time when he applied for the job, but his career path has led him to work with children rather than minerals, something that was always his intention.

"I studied water geology because water is the only mineral that has a social impact," he said. "If you work as a geologist for gold or uranium, you are sitting in a desert in the middle of Australia, and the ones that benefit the most are companies on Wall Street. But if you are working with water, it's not the shareholders who benefit but the people in the community."

In 1984 de Rooy went to Nigeria to manage what he said was the second largest water program in the world. He taught communities how to pump water through bore holes and basic hygiene to prevent diseases such as Guinea worm.

"It is one of those diseases you don't hear of, but it's massive in the developing world," said de Rooy. "You catch it from ingesting dirty water, then these worms grow in your body, then they come out!" he said, drawing an imaginary one from his leg. "Sometimes they come out from your eyes," he added.

From Nigeria, de Rooy went to New York in 1989 and dealt with administrative matters as the senior project officer to UNICEF. He returned to Africa in 1993, as the regional planning officer in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Carel De Rooy's career has taken him to Africa, the Americas, Iraq and now Russia.

In 1998 he became the area representative of Colombia and Venezuela, countries that he said are very different despite superficial similarities. "The Colombians are very active and dynamic people, while Venezuelans are more relaxed and laid- back."

In 2000 there were reports of rebels in the Colombian mountains using child soldiers. UNICEF arrived at the same time as the press.

"It was very difficult because we couldn't tell apart the ages of the rebels, we had to find anyone that looked like they were under 18 and turn their heads away from the cameras because it is illegal to film minors," said De Rooy. "We gave them counseling, but hearing their stories was very sad."

"He is a very driven person, somebody who really believes in what he is doing and that makes him a very effective advocate for children," said Sietske Steneker, the United Nations Population Fund representative in Russia who has worked with De Rooy on many projects. "If you work for him, you really have to work," she added.

In 2001, de Rooy was posted to Iraq. He flew into New York on Sept. 10 to discuss his plans and had a detailed view of the World Trade Center towers collapsing the next day.

"When I watched the second tower go down, I knew there would be war," he said. "I had to get my wife and son out of Iraq as soon as possible."

De Rooy stayed in Iraq until 2003. He moved to Russia to be safer, but leaving was difficult, as he felt as though he had abandoned his team. Iraq was a challenge, and de Rooy said that he owes his life largely to the fact that he had a good driver.

"I admit I have been scared, but some colleagues have lost their lives, so being scared is a bit trivial in comparison," he said.

De Rooy said for anyone who wants to be successful, the best advice he can give is to "listen, listen and listen to everyone in the field, in my case especially to children."

De Rooy has been in Russia for four years and is working on increasing the lifespan of the average Russian. He does not plan to stay long, however.

"I want to go south of the equator a bit," he said.

"I still haven't fathomed how people can live at such latitudes here and still be entirely happy."