Photo: Martin demonstrates a level sensor data logger to colleagues. Martin O'Malley, RedR Australia.

Finding WASH Engineering Solutions in Iraq

Australia Assists deployee Martin O’Malley doesn’t work in the most glamorous of fields. But it’s his work on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in Duhok, Iraq that will bring long-term health and sanitation to thousands of refugees.  

Since 2011, over 88,000 refugees have flooded into Duhok, in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, escaping Syria’s protracted conflict over the border. With Syria’s humanitarian crisis now in its eighth year, it’s anticipated the population is likely to remain in the camps for the foreseeable future.

Through the Australia Assists program, Martin was deployed to Duhok in May, where he is embedded into the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as a Sanitation and Waste Water Specialist.

With over 20 years’ experience in WASH engineering, Martin is focusing on a transition strategy for the camps’ emergency WASH infrastructure, which was implemented rapidly in the early emergency phase of the situation.

“The various engineers in the departments were delighted to see that UNHCR has brought on someone with experience in municipal systems, particularly the planning and financial considerations, which is experience that is lacking here. The confidence in my ability, considering the challenges, is a little daunting,” Martin laughs.

Martin preparing to install a level sensor data logger in a septic tank in Domiz 1 Camp in Duhok, Iraq. Photo credit: Martin O'Malley, RedR Australia. 

Martin is working to provide a more environmentally sustainable, long-term solution to improve the sanitation infrastructure for the population, which now spans over four camps, with a particular focus on the Domiz 1 camp which houses 42,000 refugees.

Currently, the camps are serviced by septic tanks that discharge into cesspits, or through a network of gravity pipes from shelters to a holding tank which needs regular desludging.

“The septic tanks would be considered massively overloaded by Australian Standards, with up to 16 families connected to each,” Martin says.

“The desludged material is also currently being dumped at a hilltop, which then makes its way into the natural drainage and eventually into Mosul Dam, which is a major source of drinking water for large populations.”

Understanding the particular wastewater characteristics in the Domiz 1 camp is Martin’s current priority. This involves a condition assessment of tanks, measuring black water flows and testing the black and greywater to understand the load (strength) of the material.

“The people in the camp receive between 60 and 100 litres per person per day and so before we consider any type of treatment, we need to understand how this low volume of water affects the wastewater produced,” says Martin.  

“Whatever the treatment selected, these components need to be fully understood to ensure the proper selection and sizing of options.”

Cost is also a major consideration – with UNHCR’s Iraq response just 17 percent funded, Martin’s strategy needs to be maintainable for the long-term health and sanitation of the camps’ populations while maintaining low operating costs.

“My preference is to create simpler solutions, like pond or reed bed solutions, where we can solve issues within the camps for a lower capital and operational cost. We can always upgrade these later when there is a greater financial ability to support other solutions,” says Martin.

Martin conducts a holding tank condition assessment in Domiz 1 Camp. Photo credit: Martin O'Malley, RedR Australia.

A recent success for Martin has been his assistance in the design for the sanitation infrastructure of 154 new shelters in one of the camps, which will be semi-permanent structures.

The main achievement has been in the modification of the design of the septic tank to incorporate internationally accepted standards in Septic Tanks and Onsite Domestic Wastewater, which Martin is adapting from the Australia/New Zealand Standards.

“The upgraded design will help to improve the quality of the final effluent from the tank and thereby help to reduce the negative impacts on the immediate environment,” says Martin.

“This updated design for these shelters will be the one used by the local UNHCR WASH team in the area from now on.”

Scheduled to remain in Iraq until November, Martin remains optimistic about the challenges ahead.

“It will be all about good coordination between different expertise, clearly understanding the problem in its entirety and bringing others on the journey to get a financially and environmentally sustainable wastewater solution that looks after the people of the Duhok camps in the long term,” says Martin. “I’m definitely up for the challenge.”