Rethinking humanitarian aid for refugees as investment in urban water and sanitation

This research looks at the issue of forced displacement through a new lens. It will model what could be achieved for refugees and their hosts if resources spent on camp populations were invested instead in services and infrastructure in towns and cities hosting refugees.

April 2021 - April 2023
Lucy Earle

Director, Human Settlements

Urban crises and forced displacement
A programme of work bringing together diverse perspectives on humanitarian emergencies and forced displacement, to inform new directions in urban crisis response
A view of Mafraq City, Jordan

A view of Mafraq City, Jordan. Many residents only receive water once per week and it is often stored in rooftop tanks (Jimmy Doyle via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

More than 60% of the world’s 25 million refugees live in urban centres, with the remainder in rural areas and camps. Most urban refugees do not receive assistance from the United Nations or their host government. Meanwhile camps, conceived as temporary but often in place for decades, absorb significant resources. Urban areas can provide a life of relative normality for displaced people and offer opportunities for better services.

This project, titled 'The urban refugee dividend – rethinking humanitarian aid as urban WASH investment' brings together engineers and social scientists and focuses on water and sanitation (WASH) infrastructure in Jordan.

This is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries and home to 655,000 registered Syrian refugees, living in both camps and urban centres. There is a pressing need in Jordan to invest in long-term efficient and equitable solutions for water provision.  

The research investigates WASH provision in a refugee camp and a refugee-hosting urban centre. It explores the idea that the extensive resources spent on water and wastewater trucking to and from refugee camps in Jordan since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2012, could have provided significant improvements in the quality and quantity of water available to refugees and host populations in urban centres, had it been invested in these places.

The research also explores the potential knock-on impacts on health and time (particularly of girls and women) for education, leisure and livelihoods, if the improvements to urban water and sanitation systems had been made.  

The project blends research tools from engineering and the social sciences and investigates water technologies and water access and use together. 

What is IIED doing? 

Led by IIED, the project will establish a partnership between urban displacement specialists in the Human Settlements research group, civil engineers based at University College London (UCL) and the Jordanian University for Science and Technology (JUST), and water resource management and governance experts at the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Institute in Jordan.

The team will propose a suite of politically and socially viable technical solutions that could have been put in place had humanitarian assistance to camps been directed towards refugee-hosting urban areas since 2012.  

These solutions will be at both neighbourhood and city-wide scale and may include water-efficient solutions such as water reuse, rainwater harvesting and waterless toilets. Engineers will work with the social scientists in the team to determine the social and economic benefits for refugees, and other urban residents, of these alternative technological solutions. 

The work breaks new research ground by introducing new types of data and analysis into policy discussions around refugee hosting. Ultimately, its aim is to tackle the political resistance that in many contexts places restrictions on refugees’ movements and curbs their aspirations for a dignified life in towns and cities. 

The analysis will also be presented to local and national authorities and utilities in Jordan, and could be used to inform future investments in urban services.

This is a narrated presentation exploring a world without refugee camps, that was part of the British Academy's Summer Showcase series in June 2023. In this presentation, Lucy Earle, IIED's director of human settlements, reflects on people's typical view of refugees, and how the reality can be radically different.