The search for solutions to dangerous water quality issues in refugee camps is driving an SMU lab group’s partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. SMU faculty and students will work in the lab and on the ground in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia and Bangladesh.
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.
Supported by a grant from UNHCR and additional SMU funds, faculty member Andrew Quicksall and his graduate students in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering are collecting water samples in UNHCR camps, bringing samples back to SMU for analysis and also training workers in and around the refugee camps to test water supplies.
“They’ve asked us to build out a whole picture, truly worldwide, for what’s in the drinking water in refugee camps,” said Quicksall, the J. Lindsay Embrey Trustee Assistant Professor in the Lyle School of Engineering.
Database to identify contaminants in camps with half a million people
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, some develop over time, and some are the nearly instant consequence of thousands of people collecting in unsuitable locations to escape war and famine faster than sanitary infrastructure can be built.
“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,” said 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 in support of refugee camp operations. This agreement calls for the engagement of universities, government-run research institutes and corporations to address technical and infrastructure issues faced by UNHCR in helping refugees in relation to water, sanitation, shelter, communications and health care.