Innovative and sustainable sanitation in the world’s largest refugee camp

In Cox’s Bazar, almost a million Rohingya refugees live in densely populated camps built across a hilly terrain. Such a large population has tremendous humanitarian needs—particularly for safe sanitation, which is vital to preventing outbreaks of disease.

Since the early days of the response, Oxfam and our partners have been working to help refugees stay healthy by providing innovative and sustainable sanitation and toilet facilities. Our team provides almost 4,000 toilets and works closely with more than 200 refugee-led latrine user groups to maintain these facilities. This work is all the more important during the Coronavirus pandemic. To prevent the spread of Covid-19, Oxfam latrines are disinfected with greater frequency and our teams have stepped up soap distribution and health and hygiene education in the camps.

Oxfam’s sanitation projects in Cox’s Bazar put users at the center of the design process to ensure that facilities are safe, dignified, culturally appropriate, and well-adapted to the needs of women and girls. Our Women’s Social Architecture Project connects latrine architects with groups of Rohingya women and adolescent girls to solicit feedback about toilet and bathing cubicles, discuss any problems, and make improvements to the design.

This process includes an initial consultation, a validation session to review the draft design, site selection consultations, final tweaks after construction, and, finally, an opening ceremony. Refugee women have made numerous improvements to the latrine designs, including adding a pole next to the toilet that pregnant women can grab onto for balance.

But even with well-designed toilet facilities, safely disposing of human waste poses a major challenge in the world’s largest refugee camp. To address this problem, last year Oxfam opened a major treatment plant in collaboration with the government of Bangladesh and UNHCR that is specifically designed for Cox’s Bazar’s steep terrain and capable of processing the waste of 150,000 people.

Not only is this the largest plant of its kind ever built in a refugee camp—it is also environmentally friendly. In humanitarian emergencies, the most common method of waste disposal is to use tankers to suck sewage out of latrines and then transport it elsewhere. Treating fecal waste on site—as our plant does—reduces the risk that it will eventually be dumped in a field or stream and is an important step in safely and sustainably disposing of waste during a humanitarian crisis.

Like the latrines, the plant was designed in consultation with refugees. It is ecologically innovative: taking advantage of gravity to move waste between treatment ponds and floating water hyacinth to absorb poisonous nitrogen. Multiple treatment stages prevent contamination of local water sources. Finally, the facility is designed so that when it is no longer needed, the land can easily be returned into forest.