Corporate Profile

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, provides emergency humanitarian aid, supplies and essential services to people forcibly displaced by crises.

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The equipment made a huge difference, because it gave us confidence in the information we needed to move forward. Camp maintenance staff have seen the benefit as well, and the support from In-Situ has been terrific.

Martin O’Malley, Wastewater/Sanitation Engineer, RedR Australia/UNHCR

Nov 18, 2019 / Success Stories

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Wastewater monitoring in refugee camp guides short and long-term planning

Overview

Wastewater monitoring in a UNHCR camp for Syrian refugees helps the relief agency meet current needs and plan for the future.

Challenge

Located in Iraq, 60 kilometers from the Syrian border, the Domiz 1 refugee camp was established in 2012, to provide shelter for 5,500 families. Today, what started as a hastily assembled camp with tents and emergency provisions has become an established community with permanent structures housing more than 33,000 people fleeing conflict in northern Syria.

As the camp has grown, maintaining a wastewater management system that meets the camp’s needs has been a primary concern. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) supports the local authorities in operating the camp and has worked not only to maintain a sanitation system strained by a burgeoning population, but also to develop a plan to ensure the system’s long-term viability.

Over time refugee “camps” can become towns, requiring planners to look 5, 10, 20 years into the future.

Solution

To determine current demand on the camp’s wastewater system, RedR Australia and UNHCR Wastewater/Sanitation Engineer Martin O’Malley looked for equipment that would monitor flow rate into the camp’s wastewater tanks or, more accurately, cess pits. The system is gravity fed, so flow meters weren’t an option. And O’Malley was concerned that equipment that required an external power source and conspicuous set up would attract the attention of children in the camp and welcome tampering.

He was relieved to find In-Situ’s Rugged TROLL 100, because he could easily deploy the instrument out of sight, with steel wire attached to the underside of the tank’s cover. The Rugged TROLL 100 measures both liquid level and temperature, it has a 10-year internal battery, and with periodic data downloads to the Rugged TROLL Docking Station, O’Malley could easily calculate the 24-hour data he was after.

O’Malley purchased two Rugged TROLL 100s with funding from the Australian government, and later used UNHCR funding to buy six more and four Rugged BaroTROLLs, which provided barometric pressure compensation not available with the non-vented Rugged TROLLs.

Results

With the first downloads of monitoring data, O’Malley started to get a picture of daily usage. He also noticed some troubling trends: the tanks were designed to hold only blackwater, but periodic spikes in water level and significant fluctuations in tank-water temperature led O’Malley to suspect that water other than wastewater was getting into the system.

“The temperature measurements were a real added value,” says O’Malley. “As soon as we saw the rapid increases in temperature, we realized residents were making connections to the system to dispose of gray water, such as from washing machines. And when we saw sharp decreases, we identified the cause as potable water overflows and heavy rainfall flowing into the ground-level tanks.”

The information was important, because the more water the tanks hold, the more it costs to empty and maintain them. It created an opportunity to raise residents’ awareness of the potential hazards of overtaxing the system with illicit connections. And it also helped inform long-term planning.

The reality is that, while Domiz 1 was originally built to house refugees temporarily, its residents may not return home soon, and UNHCR must make plans to develop infrastructure comparable to that found in a modern city.

O’Malley says the organization looked at 12 different sanitation options before settling on a gravity-fed system of pipes and a pumping station to move the effluent to a Waste Stabilization Pond.

“We initially estimated 20 liters per person per day to determine tank capacity. But due to our monitoring efforts, we’ve increased that to 25 liters per person per day,” he says. “When you multiply that by 33,000 people, that’s a significant increase that must be factored into the new plan.”

O’Malley says that discussions about design horizons are difficult and sensitive in a camp setting, because you’re talking about people’s lives and the potential for long term displacement. But they’re also essential, and with solid data to support their plan, O’Malley is confident they can build a system that will meet the needs of the camp for at least a decade.

“The equipment made a huge difference, because it gave us confidence in the information we needed to move forward” says O’Malley. “Camp maintenance staff have seen the benefit as well, and the support from In-Situ has been terrific. All around it’s been a very positive experience.”