Building complex infrastructure in the world’s toughest locations
How UNICEF’s construction teams deliver solutions for the most intractable humanitarian and development challenges.
In support of its programmes, UNICEF is engaged in constructing new infrastructure and improving existing facilities that provide services to children, their families and communities.
Construction projects in even the most developed environments are challenging by nature. They require a highly technical professional workforce, knowledge of local policies and regulations, a persistent commitment to supervision and quality assurance.
Complex construction in a development context presents several unique challenges. UNICEF’s construction depends on a highly skilled workforce, including engineers and construction managers in its country offices. UNICEF Supply Division in Copenhagen has a team of construction professionals who support the programme country teams with expertise and technical assistance.
Supply Division’s support is focused on the planning phase for highly complex construction projects where risks can be mitigated, and the greatest gains in efficiency can be realized. UNICEF’s donor partners and programme country counterparts trust our teams to deliver high-quality infrastructure in the world’s toughest environments. UNICEF professionals have been leading and delivering numerous complex construction projects, including those highlighted below.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Medical and vaccine warehouses in Kinshasa and Kisangani
Project complexities: Import of technology, remote location, security and safety, large and high-value project, technical workforce.
According to a 2019 survey, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), only 35 per cent of children aged 12 to 23 months are fully vaccinated, 45 per cent are incompletely vaccinated, and 20 per cent have not received any vaccine against a range of diseases, including polio, measles and meningitis. The sheer vastness of the country presents extraordinary challenges for the vaccine supply chain.
In collaboration with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Ministry of Public Health, Hygiene and Prevention, UNICEF constructed two large medical and vaccine warehouses in Kinshasa and the eastern city of Kisangani. The warehouse in Kinshasa is the largest ever built in central Africa and in any GAVI-supported country globally. These high-impact warehouses required UNICEF to overcome a number of challenges.
“[the Kisangani warehouse] will strengthen the cold chain to make quality vaccines available to families, pregnant women, and young children throughout the country, particularly in the most remote and difficult-to-reach health areas.”
As new, state-of-the-art facilities, these eight-meter-high metal warehouses include cold storage rooms and solar infrastructure requiring a surface area of 1,000 square metres. For each facility, UNICEF built rainwater harvesting systems and an incinerator for waste management. The metal structure and a significant portion of the equipment were imported, and the project required several highly trained technical staff.
As Kisangani lies a 40-hour trip by land to the northeast of the capital, logistics were an exceptional challenge. UNICEF convened multiple stakeholders to design the warehouses to meet the Government’s needs. UNICEF also hired and managed four contractors while providing quality assurance supervision and fiscal oversight of the project.
Palestine: Desalination plant for provision of drinking water to Gaza
Project complexities: Import of technology, security and workforce safety, large/high-value project, technical workforce, permits and authorisations.
UNICEF’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme lists universal and equitable access to safe water as its number one priority. Gaza’s traditional sources of water are no longer reliable due to overuse or ground contamination. As a result, 250,000 people in the Governates of Khan Younis and Rafah have been without consistent and affordable access to drinking water.
In 2015, with funding from the European Union, UNICEF proposed an innovative yet complex solution to the local water authorities: Gaza’s first-ever seawater desalination plant. UNICEF would deliver this impactful water solution with the Palestinian Water Authorities (PWA) and the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU).
The project was divided into two phases costing $32 million. Phase 1, completed in 2016, delivers 6,000 cubic meters of fresh drinking water daily. Phase 2, funded by the Islamic Development Bank and the US Agency for International Development, is scheduled to finish in December 2022 and will produce an additional 14,000 cubic meters of drinking water per day. An adjacent solar farm provides up to 30 per cent of the power for the plant.
“For the first time in recent history, the people of Gaza will access high-quality drinking water from a sustainable, Palestinian-owned source.”
The construction of the desalination plant was extraordinarily complex. First, the technology to desalinate seawater is highly sophisticated and required importation through Israel. Some supplies used by the plant have security restrictions and require special permits for their import and handling. Skilled technicians with experience designing and constructing these plants had to be invited from abroad, which required approvals from Israeli labour and immigration authorities.
UNICEF procured and managed the construction and quality assurance firms that worked with the PWA to negotiate the routing of pipes. The partners navigated additional challenges, such as the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iraq: Water treatment plants for children and families in Abu Ghraib and Al Qa’Qa’
Project complexities: Import of technology, security and workforce safety, large and high-value project, technical workforce, permits and authorizations.
In 2015, the people living along the Euphrates River near Bagdad suffered from an outbreak of cholera, a deadly water-borne disease that causes profuse diarrhoea. Epidemiologists traced the source of the outbreak to contaminated water in the Euphrates River and its adjacent channels. Untreated wastewater from the community, including local health facilities, was being dumped into the river.
UNICEF identified two projects to curb the spread of water-borne diseases in the region. The first project was at the Abu Ghraib hospital, where an innovative pilot installation would treat wastewater before releasing it into public waterways. The second project would treat water sourced from the Euphrates River, making it safe for upwards of 450,000 people living downstream from Abu Ghraib in the Al Qa’Qa area.
“Without the exceptional collaboration with the Abu Ghraib Hospital, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Construction, Housing, Municipalities and Public Works, the local community and our generous funding partners, KfW, Germany and United States Agency for International Development, it would not have been possible to deliver such impactful construction projects for the people of Abu Ghraib and Al-Yousifiayha.”
These projects required close collaboration with diverse stakeholders, including the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment, hospital authorities, and local political and community leaders. It took two years to secure stakeholder agreement for the hospital-based water treatment plant’s design.
Water treatment technologies evolve rapidly, and Iraq has limited expertise in building and maintaining treatment plants. UNICEF supported the importation of equipment and supplies from Türkiye and hired contractors who were able to secure professional water and construction engineers.
Despite ongoing security and safety concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF and its partners successfully completed both projects. Subsequently, the Government assessed 3,624 health facilities for infection prevention and control practices and has implemented facility-level treatment plants in seven additional hospitals.
As a trusted partner for funders and governments, UNICEF is committed to delivering social infrastructures such as schools and health facilities for children and young people. The UNICEF Strategic Plan, 2022-2025 guides how UNICEF deploys its resources to support complex construction and highlights two cross-cutting strategies related to this commitment:
- Risk-informed humanitarian and development programming, and
- Systems strengthening that leaves no one behind.
Complex projects may require:
- Convening and coordinating large numbers of stakeholders, from local communities and contractors to national and local government authorities.
- Managing projects which are large, high-value or have extended timelines for completion.
- Accessing sophisticated technical equipment and materials, which often require international procurement and importation.
- Navigating security and workforce safety issues.
- Securing permits, often for infrastructure never before built in the country or territory.
- Managing logistical challenges of remote or hard-to-reach construction sites.
- Identifying qualified agencies or organizations to assume maintenance and management of the infrastructure upon completion.