A new organisation hopes to get surveyors into disaster-prone zones before a crisis occurs

Graduates looking for a career in the built environment already have a plethora of opportunities to work abroad in sophisticated markets as diverse as Japan, Europe or the US.

While there is big money to be made working for a cash-rich global hotel speculator with its sights on the Middle East, or a builder with new waterfront apartments on the Mediterranean in mind, an increasing number of surveyors are looking to the voluntary sector so they can help in the developing world.

For the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, disaster management in vulnerable countries is climbing up the priority list fast.

The Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 prompted immediate offers of help from surveyors in the affected region. Many others wanted to get involved, but the volunteer base was at the time uncoordinated.

As a result the RICS launched its Major Disaster Management Commission or MDMC, to meet the need for more building professionals in areas prone to natural disasters.

Karen Gardham, deputy director of the MDMC, is helping spearhead BuildAction, an initiave for volunteers which takes a lasting approach to reconstruction in countries where hurricanes, tornadoes or floods are relatively common.

Aimed at bringing together industry and humanitarian expertise, the initiative, which is being discussed at the MIPIM property exhibition in Cannes this month, wants professionals brought in before disasters hit.

"The earthquake which hit California in 2003 killed two and injured 40," says Gardham. "Compare that with the similarly intense earthquake which hit Iran just four days later. That killed 40,000 people because of the poor quality of buildings over there."

Although donations pour in from the West when disaster strikes, the example of the Boxing Day tsunami showed there was a lack of professional input in post-disaster reconstruction, says Gardham.

"After the tsunami, the charities involved had so much money that they engaged in activities such as large-scale house building, that were outside their usual mandate, so the work was poorly handled," she says.

RICS's aim is that much of the work would be undertaken by teams of volunteers from different building specialisms, would focus on humanitarian relief in a disaster-recovery area and long-term reconstruction work.

Beyond the initial concerns of disaster management and the need to find shelter for thousands of dispossessed people, surveyors can also offer concrete help to minimise the impact of future disasters. By assessing overall structural stability, they help to increase the long-term resilience of buildings.

"The skills we'd need would be those of generic surveying, rather than coping with the aftermath of disaster, but we would, of course, provide training in the basics of humanitarian practice," says Gardham.

The skills required would, she says, include crisis planning, assessing damage, dealing with land tenure issues and mapping local rental markets for displaced people, as well as overall project management.

The RICS Commission, which has already canvassed some of the major international surveying firms on the initiative, is confident that its new approach to disaster management will prove a great lure for some of the industry's top talent.

Says Gardham: "Secondments to this type of work could prove highly desirable in terms of recruitment and retention, as well as providing training and development for many professional staff. Early interest from firms has illustrated a widespread commitment to social responsibility in the industry."

'I've visited 10 countries in the last two months'

Barry Cox, 29, is associate director and head of business space at DTZ Thailand

Having grown up on a dairy farm, I had always had an interest in rural property, and after leaving school at 18, I went to work for a rural surveying practice in Yeovil, Somerset, before beginning my BSc in rural resource management at Reading University.

After completing my Masters course a one-year, "fast track" MSc conversion course in commercial real estate I needed experience in commercial office buildings in London and joined DTZ.

Having worked there for five years, I embarked last year on a three year, full-time secondment to the firm's Bangkok office, where my role is to advise international corporate clients looking to acquire offices or industrial accommodation in Thailand. I also advise clients on real estate opportunities in the emerging markets of Vietnam and Cambodia, a key part of my role being to assess how DTZ can best assist them in acquiring, rationalising or disposing of surplus space.

While this can be great fun, it is also a big challenge the property markets in developing countries are often much less developed and transparent than in the UK and most things take far longer to complete than they would back home.

Some of my current projects include advising Cambodia's largest telecommunications company on a 10-year real estate strategy, representing an American client building a bespoke, 300,000 sq ft IT manufacturing facility in Vietnam and working with a Singapore-based investor looking to purchase a Bangkok office block.

It is often said that property is a people business and having worked in the field for some years, I've come to realise that the entire basis of the property industry rests on forging good personal relationships.

It is very easy to become entrenched in your daily job, but working in surveying has given me the chance to explore another continent, understand many different markets and visit 10 different countries in just the last two months.

Saving lives in Bolivia

Late in January, a team from MapAction billed as "the most experienced emergency mapping organisation in the world" was deployed to Bolivia in response to the country's severe floods.

Working with a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, MapAction volunteers had, by early February, mapped the locations of over 9,000 people whose homes had been displaced by flood water and needed urgent help. In all, more than 240,000 people are believed to have been affected since the government declared a state of emergency.

A non-governmental organisation with bases in the UK, Germany and the Caribbean, MapAction harnesses geographical information systems (GIS) to pinpoint up-to-date information on natural disasters. Its rapid response to floods or fires, with volunteers being dispatched within hours, can, it believes, "make a crucial difference in delivering humanitarian aid to the right place".

Combined with satellite location systems, GIS technology allows highly trained volunteers many of them professional surveyors, geographers and scientists to produce data, images and detailed maps of unfamiliar terrain for use by relief agencies on the ground.

Between emergency missions, MapAction, which has partnerships with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UK's Department for International Development, also delivers training in GIS to disaster management agencies around the world, helping to build sophisticated mapping skills in the most vulnerable countries.

Its volunteer base, who are on hand 365 days a year, have all received extensive training in disaster response.