December 23, 2011

The Lyle School of Engineering is partnering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to improve water quality in African and Asian refugee camps housing tens of thousands of people.

Engineering professor Andrew Quicksall (center) collects water samples with SMU graduate students and UNHCR partners.

Supported by a $270,000 grant from UNHCR and additional SMU funds, Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty member Andrew Quicksall and his graduate students are collecting water samples in UNHCR camps, which they will analyze at SMU. They also are training workers at the refugee camps to test water supplies. The group will integrate information from other sources to develop a database that will help UNHCR planners provide safer drinking water in existing and future refugee camps.

“They’ve asked us to build out a whole picture, truly worldwide, of what’s in
the drinking water in refugee camps,” says Quicksall, the J. Lindsay Embrey Trustee Assistant Professor in the Lyle School of Engineering.

The database developed by Quicksall’s group will identify contaminants in drinking water and allow UNHCR officials to track water quality in the camps over time. Some water quality problems are indigenous to the regions where the camps are situated and some are the result of thousands of people congregating in unsuitable locations to escape war and famine faster than sanitary infrastructure can be built.

For example, the agreement with UNHCR commits Quicksall’s team to investigate critical water issues in Dadaab, Kenya – home to the largest refugee complex in the world. Nearly half a million people are concentrated in three camps there. Refugees pouring across the border to escape war and famine in Somalia continue to face shortages of food, water and shelter, in addition to sanitation hazards.

“The technical challenges of supporting refugee populations of this size will require that our teams stay engaged with the UNHCR for years to come,” says Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering. “Fortunately, our new Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity makes it possible to lead efforts of this magnitude nearly anywhere on the globe.”

Research results have revealed concentrations of iodide in drinking water at Dadaab and fluoride in Southern Uganda and Kakukma, Kenya. Some types of contaminants may not create problems short term, Quicksall explains, but create severe health issues for people over the long term. His study group will recommend and implement remediation methods for those problem water sources.

“To work with the science in the lab and see it applied internationally – I don’t think there is an opportunity like this anywhere else,” says graduate student Drew Aleto, a member of Quicksall’s study team.

UNHCR and the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity at SMU have signed an agreement establishing a framework for increasing the role of engineering and innovation to improve refugee camp operations.