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Refugee crisis | What role for civil engineers?

Jordan’s Al Za’atari camp opened in 2012.

There are 4.8M refugees from Syria scattered across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. They are living among relatives, friends, in informal settlements, rented accommodation and refugee camps.

There are 483,104 refugees in camps across the five countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the United Nations (UN) refugee agency. 

Those camps require the basic infrastructure that sustains any human settlement.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and shelter are the needs in the camps that civil engineers must meet.

Jordan’s Al Za’atari camp opened in 2012.

Jordan’s Al Za’atari camp opened in 2012.

Source: Copyright Ehab Othman for RedR

Jordan’s Al Za’atari camp opened in 2012. The purpose-built camp is home to 79,133 refugees from Syria, and covers 530ha. It costs $500,000 (£380,000) per day to operate.

The problems facing engineers working on the refugee crisis are demonstrated in the mid-year Regional Refugee Resilience Plan for 2016-2017, which has been developed by 200 organisations across the Middle East and non-governmental oOrganisations in each country and coordinated by the UN.

There are shortfalls in funding for WASH infrastructure under the agreed multinational assistance programme. WASH funding requirements for this year have been placed at $382M (£289M), although only $100M (£75.7M) has been received. Shelter requirements have been placed at $167M (£126.5M), but only $94M (£71.2M) has been received so far. 

The report notes that 55% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in substandard conditions in informal settlements while in Jordan 70% of the refugee population receives less than the national standard water allowance of 100l per person per day.

“UNHCR has an experienced team of shelter people, there is an institutional knowledge. However, that is not true of all of the agencies involved in refugee camp construction and in particular the various military that can be involved,” says University of Canterbury (New Zealand) School of Architecture structural engineer and associate professor Regan Potangaroa. 

Water storage tanks at Al Za’atari camp in November 2015

Water storage tanks at Al Za’atari camp in November 2015

Source: Copyright Ehab Othman for RedR

Water storage tanks at Al Za’atari camp in November 2015, each tank holds 95m³ of water. The tanks are shipped from Oxford and can be installed in four hours.

“The move has been, and always was, away from camps which are treated as a last resort and more towards an integration into the host community through the local and national authorities. That is hard work.”

As for engineers working for aid agencies, the organisational challenges are as formidable – perhaps more than the technical difficulties. 

“There is a general lack of professionalism, knowledge and expertise due to high turnover of staff and a low awareness of the knowledge and skills required,” says Loughborough University lecturer in civil engineering Brian Reed. Reed has taught short courses for WaterAid, Unicef, and Médecins Sans Frontières.

“A general civil engineer needs two areas of additional competency – a strong awareness of humanitarian standards, and expertise in appropriate technical solutions. A willing volunteer is not enough in a life or death situation.”

“These skills have to be gained before an engineer goes to the field as ‘learning on the job’ is not ethically acceptable. These competencies are often underrated and not even measured, especially in specific technical areas such as water and sanitation.” 

Which technologies could help the refugee crisis?

  • Remote controlled helicopter technology for mapping, planning and sensing. “We are developing ways to find water using thermal cameras flown across land at night and early morning,” says Potangaroa
  • Photovoltaic cells for lighting and mobile phone charging
  • Space syntax technologies for planning – this software was first developed to help architects simulate how building users would move around them
  • Quality of life surveys –  which are perhaps not part of the camp’s construction and maintenance – but are nonetheless a crucial way of identifying those that have suffered a reduction in quality of life and need assistance in some way

Reed also stresses that creating aid organisations that are accountable to donors and recipients of aid is important, but this is stymied because short training periods cannot give staff the necessary depth, and funding for staff development is not common.

“One lesson that has been learnt is the need to understand the needs of the displaced population better. This has often been said but needs to feed back into the engineering response. After the conflict in Libya, displaced people did not accept the low-cost, basic sanitation that is in the standard emergency textbooks. They wanted better sanitation facilities,” says Reed.

“This has been repeated in the camps in Jordan, where shared sanitary facilities (essential in the acute phase) were not acceptable (especially for women) once things began to settle down. Rapid provision at the household level was a priority for residents for the camps but not necessarily realised by the providers of such services.”

Ehab Othman for RedR

There are 200 births at Al Za’atari camp per month.

Source: Copyright Ehab Othman for RedR

There are 200 births at Al Za’atari camp per month. The camp is home to three schools, and 680 shops that employ children – the camp has a 45% unemployment rate.

A problem for WASH work is retaining knowledge from previous responses to refugee situations. Standardised knowledge – where it exists – is not always acted on. NGOs involved in WASH work do not always provide formal reports on their work and so any experience or knowledge gained on the ground is lost.

“Often this is seen as less important than addressing the next crisis, yet provides the foundation for improving the response,” says Reed.

This problem is becoming more widely acknowledged. A briefing paper at the 39th Water, Engineering and Development conference in 2016 noted: “Evidence-based programming in humanitarian response is scarce, and without clearly defined processes, the confidence in choosing a WASH strategy is undermined. New evidence-based strategies are needed to support decision makers as demand for humanitarian responses grow.”

Aside from the officially built water storage tanks and shelters Al Za’atari has a shadow infrastructure

Aside from the officially built water storage tanks, supplied by 360 water trucks per day, Al Za’atari has a shadow infrastructure – 300km of illegal electrical wires. 

Source: Copyright Ehab Othman for RedR

Aside from the officially built water storage tanks, supplied by 360 water trucks per day, Al Za’atari has a shadow infrastructure – 300km of illegal electrical wires. 

Reed believes there is no simple technological fix to the problems surrounding refugee camps. He takes water filters as an example where a proposed technological answer to a problem is more complicated than need be. 

“Most water filters are not as sustainable as using a simple water treatment system using alum and chlorine, but still water filters get promoted again and again. Often inventors see a small part of the problem and not how everything has to fit together in the real world with real people,” says Reed.

“That’s not to say technologies can’t make a difference – solar powered pumping is proving effective and sanitation using vermicomposting looks promising, but the major improvements are made through better staff knowing how to solve problems with existing solutions. Innovation should be encouraged but this does require a clear idea of the problems that need solving rather than imposing a ‘solution’ that is not needed,” he adds. 

The best new technology as far as Reed is concerned is the mobile phone, which allows him to communicate in the field – as well as carrying out research during the response. 

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