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Anyone who has seen a news bulletin set in a refugee camp is unlikely to be surprised by the crowded tents, rough dirt roads and inevitable air of dishevelment that faces the visitor. What has surprised and humbled me in these three days visiting camps is the amazing resilience of people who, having lost their security, possessions and much else besides, not only continue as best they can with life, but plant gardens, paint their walls in bright colours and greet strangers like old friends.

Since Friday we’ve visited four camps: the first – Domiz 1 a few km south of Dohuk – to meet community organisers, gardeners and a plant nurseryman, spending time thinking about a green space in which we hope to use sustainable drainage to utilise greywater for irrigation as a pilot project. A second camp, Chamishko, near the northern town of Zakho, is a candidate to host a more significant scheme to treat larger quantities of greywater before its discharge at the camp boundary. We’ve also dropped into two others to observe the treatment or otherwise of greywater in different camp contexts.

Greywater – or water discharged from kitchens and hard external surfaces – is the common thread in this visit. More specifically, the contamination of greywater seems almost standard, including with litter and some toilet or otherwise fouled water. The systems in place may be designed to separate the different waste waters but everywhere – and not just in camps – it seems the roadside channels run with foul smelling water varying in colour from pale grey to black and sometimes red with the blood of slaughtered livestock. This may be less than ideal in any built up area, but in refugee camps, the hazards are compounded by the density of the population, the diminished standards of sanitation and the lack of much space to keep people and contaminated water apart.

That lack of space also limits what can be achieved at the surface, particularly when an existing camp is constructed as densely as those we’ve seen this weekend. The physical layout, the proximity of dwellings and narrowness of roadways gives little wriggle room to retrofit whole ‘management trains’. However, here and there where unused plots or unusable rough ground punch gaps in the fabric of the camp, opportunities exist to capture, treat and manage greywater on its way.

I’m working on a simple concept based on interception and dissipation. Water carrying contaminants such as kitchen sink washings needs first to be intercepted and held for long enough for the heaviest contaminants to settle out. In most cases, a pond is out of the question as it would present its own health and safety issues, and a large sub-surface settlement tank would involve substantial infrastructure and maintenance; so I’m considering whether for the smaller greywater streams a trap based on rubble and small aggregate would be sufficient to disperse the flow, trap contaminants and produce clean water at its outflow. Surrounded by planting, the nutrients supplied by the wastewater could then be used positively – especially if the plants were fragrant species, masking the odour of the incoming greywater. It’s just a concept at the moment and needs technical exploration in due course.

Meanwhile we’ve a few more sites to look at before returning. We’re looking for opportunities to extend sustainable drainage thinking as far as possible so that the greatest range of benefits can be realised. Some of this thinking may be new to people but so far we’ve found residents and camp management to be not only receptive to the ideas but keen to help where they can. It’s this positivity in the face of highly challenging circumstances that has made the greatest impression on me and that makes the project worthwhile on its own.

See the next blog in the diary for a clearer picture of the camps.

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