How do you mitigate disaster?
More specifically: how do you mitigate a flood?
That was a question we found ourselves asking in May 2021, when seasonal rains flooded Tunaydbah Refugee Settlement in Sudan’s Gedaref State. Unable to withstand the swirling floodwaters, the temporary shelters where many refugees lived were destroyed, and the settlement roads grew slick with mud. Many of the residents struggled to access essential humanitarian services, and the stagnant water that collected on the surface of the ground posed a threat for the spread of waterborne diseases.
We had only been in Tunaydbah Refugee Settlement for a couple of months at that, delivering urgently needed shelter and safe water and hygiene support to families who had fled the violence in neighbouring Ethiopia. We had been informed, of course, that the camp was prone to flooding during the seasonal rains: the earth here is comprised almost entirely from black cotton soil, a not-particularly-absorbent and clay-like variety of soil that becomes impossibly sticky as soon as it touches water. When coupled with a barely-there slope (0° from north to south, and only 0.04° from east to west), it is a perfect storm for flooding.
And yet it wasn’t until the rains in May 2021 that we realised how serious that impact would be. We knew we had to respond – and so we asked ourselves: How do you stop a flood?
Step 1: Create a solution
In close collaboration with community leaders and in coordination with camp management, we proposed building a micro-drainage system that could quickly evacuate water in the event of a flood. Micro-drainage canals would collect water from between rows of houses and flow into a slightly larger, secondary drain. This secondary drain, also responsible for collecting accumulated water from other roadside drainage canals, would feed into primary drains outside of the camp, effectively evacuating the water. Because of the limited natural slope in the camp, we wanted to grade the ground to ensure the water would flow into the drains.
Step 2: Assemble a team of experts
With our proposal in hand, we met with a team of refugee volunteers in the camp who had a background in engineering and experience in building and construction. We offered training in community-led initiatives for disaster risk reduction, which ensure that individuals are able to ask questions and give feedback into the initiatives taking part in their own communities; foster a sense of ownership; and ensure that we are incorporating community-led knowledge and ideas into the intervention.
Step 3: Speak to the community, and take all feedback on board
With the participatory methodology training and proposed plan for the micro-drainage system in hand, the volunteers began coordinating with representatives from each block, or area, of the camp. Explaining the construction plans to each group they met with, this volunteer team sought the feedback of the rest of the Tunaydbah community, and worked with us to incorporate that feedback into the micro-drainage design. Once we had a design the community and our experienced volunteers agreed on, we took the plans to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who is responsible for the general administration of Tunaydbah Refugee Settlement. With the design approved by UNHCR’s Shelter technicians, we moved ahead with construction.
Step 4: One-by-one, begin to build
Having helped build a community who knew and understood the project we were working on, we and our team of volunteers went back to each block and recruited teams of workers to help with drainage construction in exchange for a fair wage. We helped train each worker about how to dig, maintain, and keep the ditches clear. Working side by side, each team of workers dug anywhere from six to 12 metres of drainage ditch each day, collaborating together on a project that would help mitigate the risks of floods in future. We also recruited women-only teams of labourers, ensuring that women had safe access to an income that would allow them to meet their household needs. In the end, more than 60 percent of the women in Tunaydbah took part in the project.
On the advice of the community, we rotated work teams every two weeks instead of once a month, which meant more community workers could participate. And at the community’s request, we also built small bamboo bridges over the tertiary and secondary drainage canals so community members could more easily access other areas of the camp. At the same time as construction was taking place, we continued to work in the community to deliver training on what to do in the event of a flash flood, how to keep their shelters and families safe, and how to maintain the drainage canals.
Step 5: Take a moment and admire the result
The community teams we worked with dug more than 28,500 metres of drainage ditches in Tunaydbah Refugee Settlement. The result of their hard work? When the next rains came, no significant flooding took place in the camp, no shelters were damaged by floodwater, and no flood-related injuries were reported. Although the idea to build a micro-drainage system was met with some scepticism at first, members of the community later told us they can now see the benefit. “When I heard about the micro-drainage project the first time, I thought, ‘What are they doing? It’s not useful work,’” one block leader told us after the first big rainstorm following the construction of the drainage canals. “After the rain, now all of us know the importance of the micro-drainage project and can see how the work protects our shelters.”
Projects such as this, which aim to pre-mitigate the impact of a disaster rather than respond to it afterwards, can help reduce the vulnerability of the people that humanitarian organisations just like ours serve. When it is community-led, it means communities can work together to find solutions that work for them, have an active say in the work being carried out in their communities, and play a central role in creating sustainable humanitarian interventions.
Building a micro-drainage system in Tunaydbah Refugee Settlement has helped mitigate some of the risks associated with flooding, including damage to refugee family shelters, temporary pauses in humanitarian interventions, and decreasing the risk of waterborne illnesses. But more importantly, it was led by the people we serve, built using local knowledge and practices, and completed with the advice and wishes of the community in mind.
So how do you mitigate a flood?
By working together.
We are always looking for Shelter experts to come and join our team. If ensuring that vulnerable people have access to adequate shelter solutions and helping reduce the impact of risks like flooding sounds like something you might be interested in, take a look at our Shelter and Infrastructure vacancies and apply today.
Medair services in Sudan are funded by the UN Refugee agency, Swiss Solidarity, USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, and generous private donors.
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.