In San Francisco recently, I walked down a few industrial streets that were lined with tents. They were all closed up, but voices emerged from a few of them. I wondered how they disposed of their human waste. There was no smell, and no sign of any dumped waste or latrines.
Later, on another street, I walked by a sarcastic billboard advertising for the University of San Francisco: "We take in refugees from the East Coast."
Together, these experiences got me thinking about refugee camps, and how to put one together. After all, what would happen if a large number of people showed up in a place like San Francisco, all at once?
It turns out there's a lot of thought on this topic.
In an emergency, the camp should be big enough such that there are at least 35 square meters per person, and 3.5 square meters of actual shelter space per person. So that's about 100 people per acre, and a family of four would need sheltered space of about 12 feet by 12 feet. The camp should be put on a slight incline (2 to 4%) for drainage purposes.
Tents are OK for the very short term, but the sun and the elements break them down into uselessness after about six months. Permanent shelters need to be built, preferably by the refugees themselves, out of local materials, with sensitivity to the local climate and weather. (A push toward self-reliance is a good idea.)
Between groups of dwellings, you need a 30 meter firebreak every 300 meters - wide roads to keep accidental fire from destroying the whole settlement.
As for taking care of "excreta", there is much thought on this topic, with a range of possibilities, some taking only a few minutes to set up, from shallow trenches to sophisticated outhouses, to hookups with the local sewer system.
Obviously you need water, food, and electricity as well.
There's a risk of designing for the short-term. Many refugee camps become permanent. Some Palestinian refugee camps have been there since the 1950's.
Another risk is just thinking about practicals like sanitation, power and water, and not thinking about functioning communities, or the cultures of the occupants. Along these lines, it might be best to design the camp on the fly - put in a few requirements, like water wells, provide building materials, and see how people start to organize their communities. Different cultures will have different preferences; for example, Afghan refugees in Pakistan, when given building materials, put up walls first, before roofs, to protect their women from being stared at by outside men. Priorities are culture-specific. It's hard to imagine yourself into the situation, and so top-down planning by itself doesn't create the best living environments.
Photo: Mark Knobil, Creative Commons