Winners and losers of infrastructural development: water systems in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camps.

Cory Rodgers, DPhil candidate at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, discusses how water infrastructure affects relations between refugee and host communities in the Kakuma camps of northwestern Kenya.

Two water towers, Kakuma. Photo credit – Cory Rodgers.

Compared to the remote, arid plains that surround it, the refugee camps of Kakuma, Kenya stand out as a busy hub of bustling streets, noisy schoolyards and hectic market-places. This is no Nairobi, but Kakuma’s urban character has largely supplanted the images of desolation and austerity that once defined popular representations of the refugee camp: so much so, that Bram Jansen (2011) – focusing on the cosmopolitan character of Kakuma as a site of habitation and place-making – refers to Kakuma as “an accidental city.” While Kakuma is governed as a closed camp for humanitarian relief, the reality of the region’s reliance on the camp economy is apparent. When a government announcement in April 2015 (later retracted) suggested that camp closure was imminent, many locals were confident in their assessment of the potential repercussions: without the camp, Kakuma Town would be nothing.

Recognizing the economic potential of those residing in refugee camps, aid agencies are increasingly promoting and implementing settlement models that place fewer restrictions on refugee mobility and economic activities. In 2014, UNHCR released its Policy on Alternatives to Camps, suggesting that where camps exist, they can be phased out through integration of the refugee residents into the local host community. The policy recognizes that in countries like Uganda that support refugee livelihoods and encourage local integration, “the presence of refugees has stimulated local economies and development.”

As in any urban economy, infrastructure is a crucial foundation on which camp businesses and livelihood activities depend. The development-oriented aid strategies preferred by the international community, from the 1960s zonal development models to the 2014 Alternative to Camps policy, have stressed the importance of finding synergies between humanitarian service provision and national development goals. In its recent policy brief on refugee protection, the UNHCR argues that integration of refugees into local development plans may “prevent the creation of parallel systems for refugees and nationals of a host country, and foster greater social cohesion” (UNHCR 2016).

As sites of humanitarian service provision, camps are already full of infrastructure. The UNHCR’s protection mandate requires it to provide a certain standard of support to those registered in the camp. For water, the Sphere Protocol specifies 20 litres per person per day. Achieving distribution to this standard in a camp of thousands of people requires an elaborate system of boreholes, immersive pumps, generators and solar panels, reservoir tanks, treatment facilities and taps, as well as the plumbing networks that connect these facilities. For this reason, some host countries see it as a matter of national interest to choose remote areas when allocating land for refugee camps, positioning humanitarian to implement infrastructure projects in what would otherwise be neglected peripheries (Kibreab 1989:485).

In Kakuma, camp protection services are generally for refugees exclusively, with parallel projects undertaken for the host community. However the UNHCR and Turkana County Government are currently partnering to implement an innovative settlement model focused on economic integration, just 12km north of Kakuma near the town of Kalobeyei. Refugees and Kenyans will live in close proximity (refugee residences remain restricted to a designated area with demarcated boundaries) with shared markets, community gardens, schools and other social amenities. The novelty of this approach is evident in the plans for water provision. Taps will be provided at the Kalobeyei site for both refugee and host community use. Additionally, rather than limiting refugees to the minimum rations of water for Sphere compliance, agencies aim to provide adequate water for both domestic and livelihood use. The plan has required careful design of infrastructure, with shelters arranged in rectangular compounds of 28 units, each sharing a 5,000 or 10,000-litre water tank.

The appearance of organization and order suggests progress compared to the community water taps in the old Kakuma camps. Taps are located in public spaces, each consisting of four nozzles emerging form a single steel pipe. Residents queue behind their designated nozzles, waiting with their jerry-cans as those in front take their fill. The nozzles do not have any controls; water is released from steel reservoirs perched high above the camp according to a schedule written by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the implementing partner in charge of WASH. During this time, water flows freely from the taps, but jerry-cans and their bearers wait to collect the precious resource. A water system assessment in 2011 indicated that each tap serves an average of 77 people. However, usage/tap varies across the camp, and it has likely increased in many areas due to influxes of new arrivals from conflict areas such as South Sudan.

UNHCR tanker supplying potable water. Photo credit – Cory Rodgers.

The scene appears chaotic, and a newcomer may be confused to see many Turkana people from the local host community standing in the queues. However, each household is assigned a nozzle and a daily allowance, sometimes specified on a card, and order is maintained – as much as possible – by local WASH committees recruited from the community. The Turkana people present have been incorporated as proxies employed by refugee families to fetch water for their homes and, if they can manage on their daily rations, their businesses. Most water carriers earn 500 shillings (about 3 GBP at the time of the research) per month per household for their work. During periodic water shortages, usually due to maintenance problems, Turkana people collect water at shallow wells on the nearby River Taarash and carry them to the camp for sale, asking about 50 shillings (30 pence) per 20 litre jerry-can. They also supply water for the cooling tanks in locally operated electricity generators, which need not be potable.

Through the carefully designed infrastructure layout at Kalobeyei, UNHCR and its partners hope to support economic growth and local integration. However, in places like Kakuma where resource provision is achieved through local ad hoc arrangements, plans to improve formal infrastructure need to recognize the informal systems that they replace. A more integrated water distribution system serving both the refugee and host communities could bring people together around better infrastructure, funded by humanitarian agencies but serving everyone. For those in the Turkana community who sell and transport water for a living, they are the existing water infrastructure, and many may feel robbed of livelihood opportunities if the system is altered. Development-oriented aid strategies have much to offer those with the skills and capital to pursue livelihoods, but decision-makers must acknowledge that these strategies may entail both winners and losers.

This article is a product of research undertaken by Louise Bloom (Humanitarian Innovation Project, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford) and Cory Rodgers (Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford) in July and August 2016. Fieldwork was made by possible by seed funding at the Refugee Studies Centre, provided by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.