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Newsletter 12-21
September 2012

The Challenges of Liquid Logistics in Refugee and
Internally Displaced Persons Camps

MAJ Timothy Haylett, U.S. Army


Around the world, turmoil continues to plague millions of people yearly through war, conflict and natural disaster. Based on recent calculations from Depoortere and Brown's "Rapid health assessment of refugee or displaced populations," there are over 40 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees worldwide.1 In places like Darfur, where over two million displaced persons are competing for limited resources, liquid logistics becomes a top priority.

Safe and consistent access to cooking fuel and clean water is a major concern for humanitarian and health organizations operating within refugee and IDP camps. Without these essentials, displaced persons face significant risks to their health, nutrition, safety and well-being. One health expert recently noted, "[T]he provision of adequate food, clean water, and sanitation has been demonstrated to be a more effective intervention than most medical programs."2

Following is a brief overview of the challenges refugees and displaced persons in camps face without an adequate supply of fuel and water. It will provide some practical solutions on how military organizations can assist through best practices, education, and security.

Finding Cooking Fuel

Based on typical cultural roles in a refugee or IDP camp, women are responsible for collecting the cooking fuel that is essential for family survival. Every day women and young girls must leave the relative safety of their refugee camps to collect firewood for their families. In doing so, they often face dangerous conditions that range from accidental injury, abduction, and theft, to rape, and even death.

In Northern Darfur, just outside the Abu Shouk IDP camp, the day begins for many women as early as three o'clock in the morning as they scour the desert for miles in hopes of finding enough wood to last a full day.3 Because of dwindling resources, these women often find only small tree roots and pieces of kindling after six to eight hours of searching. In a delicate ecosystem such as that of Darfur, low levels of rainfall and recurrent drought have caused a decline in plant growth and spread of deforestation in and around the camps. This problem has continued to worsen as supplies have diminished, population levels have increased, and increased numbers of people are housed within these confined spaces.

Photo showing cooking fire with sticks

Figure 10-1. Refugees in South Sudan use small twigs found in the desert to cook their evening meal.
(Photo courtesy of Frank Haylett, South Sudan)

Providing Support

Firewood collection and fuel alternatives are important issues that require immediate attention. Military units tasked to provide support to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) in a humanitarian emergency can prove instrumental by providing basic physical protection and transportation. Protection measures can range from a security presence around or within refugee camps to providing security patrols to areas where violence against women gathering wood is more prone to exist.

Sending patrols out with the women and girls during their collection of firewood in areas outside of the camps will not only help to prevent crimes that target women, but also will assist the ecological system by ensuring wood collection is spread farther from the camp. The promotion of reforestation is critical in areas where protracted displacement camp presence is likely. In addition, ensuring fuel is more easily obtained during the initial stages of a humanitarian crisis will reduce the need for refugees to leave the camp while levels of conflict are high. This will require more deliberate logistics planning and preparation when establishing or supporting these camps.


The military can also play an important role in educating the population in the efficient use of scarce resources. Teaching techniques that require shorter cooking times for certain foods and more efficient ways of burning wood is a start to the conservation of resources. Providing communal cooking facilities, substituting charcoal or sawdust briquettes for wood, and incorporating new technologies such as solar power stoves are a few techniques that will improve life around the camps. Some recent examples that illustrate these recommendations are from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC).

In 2000, the TBBC hired a consultant to review the ration levels and cooking fuel type issued in some of the refugee camps within Burma. The review determined that the food being issued to the refugees required longer cooking times, which resulted in increased fuel consumption. Additionally, the stoves they were using were inefficient and dangerous to the environment. Recommendations were made and processes quickly altered. Eight kilograms of compressed sawdust logs became the new standard for weekly consumption of a family dwelling. These changes, coupled with the use of more efficient stoves and food that was easier to cook, represented a few of the major solutions to this problem.4

Water Requirements

Much like the limited amount of fuel available in or around IDP and refugee camps, potable and nonpotable water is always of extreme concern for humanitarian relief organizations. Water is essential for human life and is required to meet basic needs for cooking, drinking, domestic hygiene, and health care. According to the Sphere Project, the average minimum amount of water needed daily is 15 liters per person. This number can vary according to climate, available facilities, cultural practices, and population.

Broken down into three main groups, the consumption of water required for drinking is three liters per day, basic hygiene is six liters per day, and basic cooking is six liters per day.5 These figures do not take into account the additional amount required to preserve livestock or for hospital usage, but do provide general guidelines for daily use.6 It should be noted that people living with HIV/AIDS or other communicable diseases require additional water for drinking and personal hygiene. Hospitals and patient treatment facilities can easily become the largest consumers of water in an IDP or refugee camp.

Photo showing children drawing water from a local pump

Figure 10-2. Refugee children living in South Sudan drawing water from a local pump as a part of their morning routine.
(Photo courtesy of Frank Haylett, South Sudan)

Disease Prevention

Disease is often caused or exacerbated by an insufficient quantity and quality of water for the required population. In the early stages of an emergency, until minimum standards can be achieved, the priority should be to provide water equitably to all - even if it is of intermediate quality.7 One of the major health concerns for people drinking untreated water is diarrhea, especially among young children. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has empirical evidence showing that insufficient water and sanitation also adversely affect children's education in IDP and refugee camps due to diarrheal-related health issues.

UNHCR reported an average decrease of 26 percent in the amount of water collection for children and their families who experienced a case of diarrhea within the past 24 hours versus those with no diarrhea.8 Since water retrieval is primarily the children's job in a refugee camp, diarrhea becomes a major concern for individual and group health. Furthermore, the quality of a water supply is of vital importance to a population's health. A primary indicator of levels of contamination in water is the presence of fecal coliforms. If fecal coliforms are present, the water should be treated immediately.9


Some people may prefer to use untreated sources of water, like rivers or lakes, based on custom, convenience, or taste. It is important to educate people on the health risks of drinking untreated water and encourage the use of protected sources. For this reason, water points should be easily accessible, and wait times should be reduced as much as possible. The number of people that each water source can service will depend on the yield and availability of water at each point. As a general rule, the chart below illustrates people per water point based on flow rate.

250 people per tap, based on a flow of 7.5 liters/minute

500 people per hand pump, based on a flow of 16.6 liters/minute

400 people per open well, based on a flow of 12.5 liters/minute

-Source: Sphere Project, page 65

Providing Support

During the initial or emergency phases of a humanitarian crisis, military organizations can help to improve health and sanitation by providing temporary tanker deliveries of potable water until more permanent water wells are dug. Engineer units can assist in installing plastic water tanks for storage and digging trenches for latrines. Preventive medicine specialists can assist in checking the quality of the water and providing recommendations for the layout of the camp. These initial steps will drastically improve the control of communicable diseases and health epidemics.

A sanitary health survey is optimally conducted when arriving at a new IDP or refugee camp. This assessment should be used to identify risks associated with queuing times, contamination, transportation, storage, drainage, and waste procedures.


Millions of refugees and displaced persons around the world are dependent on humanitarian assistance provided by the United Nations, host nation military, and numerous NGOs. Although the use of U.S. military forces is normally the last resort in providing support for refugees and displaced persons, the military is a force multiplier that brings a host of important capabilities to the effort. The military can provide logistics in the form of air and ground transportation, horizontal and vertical engineer assets, and sustainment expertise. It can assist in camp management by advising, monitoring, and promoting best practices. It can help in coordinating services, assisting in protection, and in developing firm and effective camp leadership and good governance among the population.

Refugee and IDP camps are often overcrowded, suffer from limited resources, and comprise high concentrations of people fighting for survival. The impact on the environment and available natural resources can be considerable. Nature is often the only mechanism by which displaced persons are provided firewood (fuel) for cooking and water for their basic needs. Because of this, the depletion of forests and rivers can ignite conflict between refugees and the local communities. Providing liquid logistics becomes the key to successful camp operations. Military organizations can be a positive force in the success of coordinating, educating, and protecting IDP and refugee populations.


1. Evelyn Depoortere and Vincent Brown, Rapid health assessment of refugee or displaced population, third edition. Médecins Sans Frontières, April 2006, page 11.

2. Michael Toole, "Refugee Health an Approach to Emergency Situations," page 7. Médicins San Frontières. Macmillan Education UK: 1997.

3. Rosa Cruz, "Women search for wood, men search for victims," Global Darfur Day, 2007, retrieved from

4. David Morgando, Environmental Impact Assessment: Organizational Program and Field Activities, Final Report, Thailand Burma Border Consortium, 23March 2012. Retrieved from

5. The Sphere Project 2011, The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards. Belmont Press, Ltd. Northampton, UK, 2011, page 98. Retrieved from

6. Ibid., page 64.

7. Ibid, page 65.

8. A. A. Cronin, D. Shrestha, N. Cornier, F. Abdalla, N. Ezard and C. Aramburu, "A review of water and sanitation provision in refugee camps in association with selected health and nutrition indicators - the need for integrated service provision," Journal of Water and Health, No. 06.1. IWA Publishing 2008, page 1. Retrieved from

9. The Sphere Project 2011, The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards. Belmont Press, Ltd. Northampton, UK, 2011, page 67.


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