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How do you provide water and sanitation to 50,000 people in the middle of the desert?

July 2013: UNICEF WASH Specialist Kitka Goyol discusses building a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert.


By Toby Fricker

The United Nations estimates that as many as 1 million Syrian refugees will be living in Jordan by the end of 2013. To help accommodate this huge influx, a new camp is being built. UNICEF Jordan’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist Kitka Goyol takes us on a tour of the camp.

AZRAQ, Jordan, 19 July 2013 – Kitka Goyol stands at the top of a small hill overlooking a vast expanse of inhospitable desert. The barren land is dotted with diggers and cranes at work. From this distance, they look like small toys. This place will be the Azraq refugee camp.

The task at hand is to transform this desert into a habitable site for 50,000 people, with the potential to expand to 130,000 should the need arise.

“The first thing that came to my mind was it doesn’t look feasible, because – as you can see – there is virtually little sign of life,” Mr. Goyol says. “It’s just in the middle of nowhere.”

But work has been speeding up over the past two months. “We have seen the place evolve from a road network now being in place to the facilities we are planning for the septic tanks and water, so it’s becoming real,” he says.

Learning from Za’atari

The first camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Za’atari, opened 12 months ago, and it is now home to some 120,000 people. The experiences and opinions of residents living there have been critical in planning for Azraq.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partners have divided the new site into five ‘villages’. Each village will include some 1,000 family compounds with up to 30 people in each.

“They will limit the number of tents within an area to make it more homely. So we’ve agreed on six tents per extended family compound, and in each of those family compounds will be two latrine units,” Mr. Goyol explains.

The initial costs of installing the sanitation facilities will be higher than usual, but once in place they will be handed over to the community. As a result, maintenance costs should be reduced, as those using the toilet and shower blocks will take care of them. In Za’atari, the facilities are much larger and used by many more people, which has resulted in damages and hygiene issues.

The first structure arrives

Mr. Goyol stands next to a large hole in the ground. He’s excited but slightly nervous. The first septic tank has arrived from Amman and is being offloaded by a crane.

“Really this is a moment we have been waiting for. We are hopeful that it fits well,” he says.

© UNICEF Jordan/2013/Fricker
A septic tank being installed at a site in the Jordanian desert where UNICEF is helping construct the Azraq refugee camp.

The first of 4,600 septic tanks for the camp is slowly lowered into the hole. The tanks will serve 15 people each and will be emptied by desludging trucks every 25 days. The waste will be taken to a water treatment plant 60 km away. 

The tank fits, and now the ‘superstructure’ follows – the housing for one toilet and a shower.

“Nearly there, nearly there – we are excited now. Got our first prototype ready,” Mr. Goyol says while helping to position the block.

The first structure for refugees in Azraq camp is standing.

Coping with water scarcity

The Ministry of Water and Irrigation has identified two sites for boreholes, but accessing water in the fourth most water-scarce country is a serious challenge – and costly.

Water will be pumped from a depth of 500 metres from the second aquifer identified. The first is protected, as it’s a source of water for the nearby town of Azraq.

“The water will be delivered from the boreholes directly to overhead tanks, and from there water will flow by gravity to the service areas,” Mr. Goyol says.

A total of 1.5 million litres of water a day, 30 per person, will be supplied. It’s twice the minimum humanitarian standard of 15 litres per person per day.

With the population of Jordan’s towns and refugee camps bursting at the seams, it’s a race against time to get the site operational. And after a day in the intense desert heat, Mr. Goyol takes time to reflect.

“As you can see, the terrain and environment is harsh. It’s going to be difficult for everybody,” he says. “But we hope these facilities and services we’ve put in place will help make it more habitable for the refugees.”



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