Listening to Water Treatment Needs in Rwanda Refugee Camps

Story and Photos by Leah Freed

Last September, I had the chance to travel to Rwanda with a new water treatment prototype that our Global Health team and PATH are in the process of developing. Using the same technology that’s built into the SE200 Community Chlorine Maker, this early prototype functions like a chlorine faucet, with the potential to produce more chlorine for more people, with much less effort than current chlorine generation methods require. The design team’s intent is to develop a chlorine maker to serve disaster relief scenarios, providing clean water to large camps of people in distressed situations.

Demonstrating our new chlorine maker prototype to local operators.

Our partners at World Vision and PATH challenged MSR engineers to do just that. Our design goal is to make this new chlorine maker small enough to be a carry-on item on a plane, and have easy-to-follow instructions so that first-time users can get the device set up and running quickly with little or no training.

To further understand how our chlorine maker concept could serve those who would need to rely on it, we set off to Rwanda last fall to visit two refugee camps. We wanted to understand the current water treatment and chlorine generation methods used in refugee camps, as well as put faces to the chlorine maker operators, and hold focus groups and demonstrations with water treatment operators and refugee camp personnel to collect feedback on our early concept.

The metal roofs of the permanent structures built by UNHCR for the refugees at Mugombwa.

Rwanda has been home to refugees from many African countries for well over 10 years and as of September 2015, had about 148,000 refugees within its borders, spread out over six refugee camps and two temporary transit centers [1]. We would be visiting two camps that differed in their level of development and structure. One camp, Mugombwa, has been in operation for about 2 years, while the other, Mahama, has only been in operation since April of 2015.

Our first stop was Mugombwa Refugee Camp, which is in the Gisgara District, Southern Provence, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, Kigali. The camp comprises 8,268 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Established 2 years ago, Mugombwa has a permanent water treatment system that includes piped ground water to sixteen water points in the camp, where water is provided for free. Water is made available two times a day – from 6-10 a.m. and in the early evening, and each water point is monitored by appointed people in the camp.

A water treatment station in Mugombwa.

The staff of the water treatment station includes two representatives from World Vision Rwanda, and several other employees who are refugees themselves. Here, their water treatment operator has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. This is beneficial because currently nothing about the water treatment process is automated or easy—the operator must use his own discretion and calculations to figure out how much powdered chlorine disinfectant to add to make the water is safe for drinking.

The water treatment staff at Mugombwa seemed very excited about the prospect of our prototype. The two World Vision Rwanda employees and the water treatment operator at one point drew a flow diagram of their own hopes and dreams for the configuration of our device within their process as it is operating now. It was wonderful feedback to get. They understood the need for the device and told us exactly how they could foresee using it. That information is certainly invaluable in deciding where to focus our efforts for the next design iteration.

Because their water treatment plant is permanent, we believe there are essentially two water treatment needs for this type of community – 1) a rapidly deployable treatment solution to use immediately once refugees start inhabiting the camp; and 2) a longer-term solution that can be used with the permanent water tanks in the camp. I can see this prototype bridging both of those gaps: It is small enough to deploy quickly, and can also be moved to the permanent storage tank site for chlorination once they are built.

Next we traveled to the Mahama refugee camp in Kirehe District, Eastern Provence, about 170 miles from Kigali. The Mahama camp has only been in operation since April, 2015, and a huge amount of activity was going on to establish permanent housing, toilets, and piped treated water access. The Mahama camp already had 44,000 refugees from Burundi, and UNHCR was expecting to have 60,000 before the end of the year.

The Mahama camp is very large. This photo doesn’t really capture the scale of the operation.

Before installation of their new water pipeline is complete, surface water is being pumped from the Akagera River on the Tanzanian border; treated with alum, lime and chlorine in a central location; and then pumped into delivery trucks which are driven to the camp and used to fill up tanks at the top of the hill. At the onset of the Mahama camp, the Akagera River was relatively clear, but as the rainy season began, the river became more and more muddy. While I was there, the river water was nearly impossible to see through.

At the onset of the Mahama camp, the Akagera River was relatively clear, but as the rainy season began, the river became more and more muddy.
Water delivery trucks at the Mahama camp.

This treatment process is running for 10 hours a day, every day, trying to hit a camp target of 16-17L/person/day. To put that in perspective, right now, the treatment facility needs to provide 748,000L per day, with the capability of getting up to 1,020,000L per day by the end of the year.

The Mahama camp had many more World Vision and UNHCR staff members on site than were at Mugombwa because the camp is larger and there is a great deal of development happening. World Vision’s engineer trained the water treatment and pump operators to create stock solutions of alum, lime, and chlorine. I saw first-hand how complicated it is to make chlorine in the field. It included scooping 20 bottle caps of powdered chlorine (each scoop was about 5 grams) into a 20L bucket of water and stirring the mixture with a stick. The powdered chlorine was potent and required the operators to wear protective equipment to keep from burning their skin. Operators would then add a large batch of this chlorine stock solution to each 10,000L tank.

Treatment operators demonstrating their tools—a stick and a little cup.

For me, this was a big reality check. I’ve spent my career in chemistry and microbiology labs where so much thought and effort is taken into getting an accurate and precise measurement of your solute. Instead of thinking in terms of parts per million, I need to be thinking about cap fills per bucket. This was really important in understanding the level of difficulty and detail that we really need to target when designing the delivery mechanism of the next iteration of the device.

Adding chlorine stock solution to a 10,000L tank.

It was important for our team to see the different procedures for treating water, and to understand the different levels of structure in place at these camps. This knowledge will help us design a better device to address the needs of the various types of people who will need to rely on this device. The Mugombwa and the Mahama camps each represent two distinct types of camps that I suspect we will see elsewhere in the world as we study the needs of refugee camps. Mugombwa was on the small side (for Rwanda), but was very well established and has been consistently providing their community members with safe water for over 2 years. Mahama, on the other hand, was huge and was still in the development stage for both their water treatment systems and the rest of the camp infrastructure.

Photo: PATH. Leah carried out numerous focus groups with local operators to learn important lessons about our design.

After carrying out numerous focus groups with operators and non-governmental organization workers, we learned several important lessons about our design. Most importantly, a high capacity system is going to be important in reducing the burden of making chlorine in refugee settings. Making chlorine is necessary, complicated, and sometimes even dangerous. Second, we observed that five gallon buckets are often (but not always) available for making chlorine. We plan to make the system integrate with multiple sized buckets, as well as other containers. Finally, we learned that operators in refugee camps have a wide variety of training levels. Some are engineers with college degrees, while others are much less educated. The next generation chlorine maker needs to be operable by all of them.

The engineering team at MSR Global Health has been hard a work integrating these learnings into a second iteration of the prototype. We plan to bring our next iteration prototype into the field soon and get one step closer to a practical solution to providing safe water in some of the world’s most challenging circumstances.

The development of the next gen MSR chlorine maker is being carried out in partnership with PATH and World Vision, and funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.


[1] UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency, “UNHCR Fact Sheet,” September 2015.

Leah Freed, the Physical Lab Test Manager at MSR, and has been with the company since 2011. As such, she provides technical support in planning, executing, and monitoring laboratory and field experiments related to the development of new products. Her portfolio of projects extends over most of the company from coextruded film, extruded tubing, activated charcoal, MF and UF membranes, and other water treatment media; to the development of new water purification technologies. Leah’s first project with MSR was on the SE200 Community Chlorine Maker during the early stages of its development. She received her B.E. in Chemical Engineering from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and her M.S.E. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Washington.