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Scientists from Southern Methodist University to analyze water samples from Kenya, Uganda, and more
The search for solutions to dangerous water quality issues in refugee camps is driving a Southern Methodist University (SMU) lab group's partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—an agreement that will put the university's faculty and students to work both in the lab and on the ground in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia and Bangladesh.
Supported by a $270,000 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. 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, for what's in the drinking water in refugee camps," said Quicksall, assistant professor at the Lyle School of Engineering. "So we're going to go on site, collect water, analyze some in the field and bring quite a bit of water back to our SMU laboratories and get a full picture."
The developing database 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 others 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.
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, many living in makeshift shelters of twigs, reeds and scraps. Refugees pouring across the border to escape war and famine in Somalia continue to face shortages of food, water, shelter and sanitation hazards there.
"The technical challenges of supporting refugee populations of this size will require that our teams stay engaged with the UNHCR for years to come," said 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."
Some camps have safe drinking water available, but the taste is so off-putting that residents seek out other sources. In Nakivale, Uganda, for example, the high iron content in well water drives refugees to drink surface water that is frequently contaminated with coliform bacteria. Quicksall's group also will investigate methods of improving the taste of such safe yet unpalatable drinking water.