In August 2017, targeted violence in the Rakhine State of Myanmar forced over 670,000 people to flee their homes and seek safety in the south east of Bangladesh, adding to an existing Rohingya refugee community of approximately 300,000.
The immediate humanitarian response sought to meet basic needs, with many WASH actors rapidly constructing water and sanitation facilities but struggling to keep up with the scope and scale of the emergency. This was exacerbated by difficult terrain and limited space. Consequently, speed was prioritized over quality, leaving little room for consultation with the affected population, and partially resulting in unsustainable services and infrastructure.
Given its substantial experience in providing crucial WASH services in camp settings, Oxfam was involved in this response from the very outset. Drawing on prior experience (see Table A1
(iv), Appendix A
) and ongoing research [1
] and thereby recognizing that the average life span of a refugee camp is 17 years [6
], Oxfam’s technical team soon sought longer-term solutions to the provision of water and sanitation facilities. The scale of the refugee camp—comparative at this point to a Bangladeshi city and expected to exist for the next 20 years—likened it to a peri-urban area for which cost-effective and sustainable water access had to be developed. The construction of a camp-wide water network system, embedded in and supported by the sector-wide WASH strategy, was, therefore, considered a viable solution.
Oxfam advocated for the construction of a water network early in the response (during the first year), drawing on technical expertise from similar projects recently conducted in Ethiopia, Angola, and Rwanda. Learning from the past and factoring in the importance of CE in the process, Oxfam sought to involve the community in a structured manner and from the onset, making sure to both measure and document its engagement. However, in light of recent research that shows that displaced communities are highly vulnerable and “will have limited ability to manage emergency water and sanitation services” [1
], this involvement did not entail community-based approaches to the operation and maintenance of the system.
In 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) funded a project to develop longer-term water supply networks in refugee camps. Water networks in such settings are connected through an underground piped system that supplies water to different distribution points throughout the camps. Their design and implementation improve and ensure water quality on a sustainable basis.
In the initial acute phase of the Rohingya refugee crisis, shallow tube wells were constructed as a water source; however, these became rapidly contaminated due to overflowing and/or damaged latrines. To decrease the risk of water contamination, the WASH sector strategy was to construct deeper tube wells. Considering the year-long life span of the camp, more sustainable approaches—such as a water distribution network—were required. The investment in such a system was considered an effective and sanitary mechanism as the water could be treated directly through the system (rather than establishing individual chlorination mechanisms at water points for example). Moreover, such a water network is solar-powered (as opposed to water points which are operated through hand pumps), thereby providing the additional benefit of decreased operation and maintenance costs in the long term. This is a critical advantage, as funding for humanitarian responses, and for their ongoing operation and maintenance often declines in the years following the onset of the emergency.
The overall design for the water network was led by Oxfam’s engineering team based on a global agreement developed with UNHCR in 2016. The design process began in March 2018 and included detailed field assessments and extensive coordination and strategy development with the WASH sector. The implementation process of the water network system, including the level to which communities would be involved, was then divided amongst the different WASH partners according to their designated catchment area. In Oxfam’s case, the initial phase of the water network design and construction process focused on two designated areas of the larger refugee camp targeting a population of initially around 7000 people, but expanding later to capture an additional 10,800 (see Table A1
(v), Appendix A
Contrary to previous water network design projects, Oxfam’s team integrated a strong community engagement component from the onset, investing in a dedicated CE team to implement the water network project in assigned camps and designing an innovative approach. This included detailed steps to ensure consultation and opportunities for communities to influence the decision-making process on the design.
3.2.3. Initial Findings
provides a summary of barriers and enablers people faced as well as their suggestion to improve access to context appropriate information which entailed in detail:
Current barriers to water collection and use: During the initial consultation process, communities highlighted the various barriers to regular water collection, including frequent breakdowns of the water points (tube wells), the challenges faced by women and girls due to heavy-weighted handles of the tube well, and/or the location of the water points. For the groups consulted, such barriers to regular water collection result in insufficient water quantities at the household level.
Current information ecosystem: Independent from age or gender groups, the public announcement system (displaying pre-recorded messages), and the presence of non-governmental organization (NGO) volunteers across the different blocks were universally acknowledged as critical information sources. The public announcement system is particularly relevant for adolescent girls as they are often not allowed to attend community or other meetings and, thus, have little opportunity to access information.
In another camp, all groups stressed the importance of meetings with community-based volunteers (CBVs) and block representatives to access information, which could then be further shared with their family members. The Mahji system (see Table A1
(i), Appendix A
) was also mentioned as one of the means by which people receive information.
Community’s perceived barriers to access information and provide feedback: Depending on the source and purpose, information from NGOs is shared by volunteers (CBVs, outreach workers) during meetings, by megaphones or door-to-door. The different community groups expressed that this limits their ability to provide feedback. Many meetings grouped different sub-groups together, rather than holding separate meetings per sub-group (per age/gender or other social determinants), and a majority felt that this created a real barrier to access information, thereby also restricting participation in decision-making processes. The consultation also highlighted that information shared with Mahjis or block leaders was often not shared with the wider population, limiting their understanding of trends, wider needs, and decisions made by the humanitarian community.
Type and content of information: Most groups consulted highlighted a need to understand the details of the water network—including some technical details on how water is supplied from the borehole, through the pipe network, to the tap stands where they will access it. Young women and adolescent girls expressed interest in gaining information about the operation and maintenance of the system, and in particular how damages/challenges to the tap stands could be reported. Elderly women mentioned having no prior experience of using tap stands as a water source and, therefore, wanted to know what differentiates these from tube wells, the common water source in the camp. Illiterate women wished to understand how to use the taps for fetching water.
Community’s suggested communications methods: The majority of different water users prefer information to be shared through a variety of communication channels or platforms:
Most of them prefer small group meetings, limited to the representatives of different water user groups, based on their suggestions. However, such representatives would have the assigned responsibility of ensuring that the outcomes of these meetings be shared among the user group members.
The use of pictures/posters ranked as the second highest preferred communication method. Different groups suggested the printing of “dos and don’ts” in pictures on the tap stands, which they would use on a daily basis. Illiterate women expressed the need for colored images to facilitate understanding.
The use of megaphones with pre-recorded messages was another critical communication channel identified, particularly among adolescent girls and elderly women.
Language preferences: Language was a key challenge in ensuring an adequate response to the needs of the Rohingya refugees across the camps in Cox’s Bazar. The consultation process highlighted the need to share verbal information in Rohingya, either during meetings or using pre-recorded audio. However, written information (on posters or leaflets) was preferred to be in Burmese. This was mainly due to the fact that men in particular can read Burmese and are then able to translate the information for others.
Information content: to explain the system in more detail, the engineering staff drew system maps which were then used by the team to explain to each of the different groups how the water would flow through the system.
Tap stand design:
Measuring community participation and satisfaction:
The team used a participatory and visual tool (the spidergram) outlined in Figure 6
to measure five separate indicators of the community’s involvement and level of satisfaction with regard to the design of the water network project, including the following:
Information sharing on the project (technical details, roles and responsibilities in the process);
Involvement in the design, site selection, and construction of the tap stand as described in detail in Figure 7
, Figure 8
and Figure 9
Feedback mechanisms available for communities to share suggestions and concerns with Oxfam.
Each of the indicators was discussed in turn to understand both positive and negative ranking values. Each participant was then asked to score the different components from 0–5 (with 0 indicating a low level of satisfaction and 5 indicating a high level of satisfaction, with no need for further changes) (see Table 1