IoT Helps U.N. Refugee Program Track Water Volume, Safety

By Claire Swedberg

The United Nations Refugee Agency has completed a one-year pilot of an Internet of Things-based LoRaWAN network from Kerlink to track the amount of water delivered to refugee camps in Uganda and Iraq, with plans to expand the system to six more camps.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has completed a year-long pilot of an Internet of Things (IoT)-based system that automatically measures the volume and quality of water being delivered to two refugee sites. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) system, which was tested in Uganda and Iraq for 12 months, employs wireless LoRaWAN networks supplied by network connectivity company Kerlink. The system manages the collected sensor data, forwarding data regarding water quantity and quality from the remote location to global data centers.

The solution is provided by French IoT company Green City Zen. The systems integrator helped select the appropriate sensors and integrated the IoT data software with UNHCR's own management software. The system employs water-level sensors from Tekelek, using Kerlink's Low Power IoT Reference Design. Kerlink provides its Wirnet Station LoRaWAN gateways, which receive sensor-based LoRaWAN transmissions and forward that data via cellular connectivity. The next step, according to Stéphane Dejean, Kerlink's chief marketing officer, will be to deploy the same solution at six more refugee sites around the world, while the technology will continue to collect data at the pilot sites.

Kerlink's Stéphane Dejean

The Arua Field Refugee Camp, located in North Uganda, houses South Sudan refugees. It was opened in 2017 and its population has since grown to about 470,000, making it one of the world's largest such refugee camps. On average, more than 2,400 new South Sudanese refugees arrive at the camp per day, fleeing violence at home. The acceptable amount of water for refugees is 20 liters per person per day. In many countries, where water infrastructure simply isn't there, this amount can be difficult to provide.

UNHCR manages water-collection efforts for refugee camps across the globe. Its UNHCR Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program ensures that millions of people in camps worldwide have enough water for drinking and sanitation. As with many camps, there is not a suitable water supply at the Arua Field site for the large number of refugees housed there, so UNHCR pays local companies to collect water and deliver it by truck.

At Arua Field, WASH has built a reservoir where water is stored and then distributed to the refugees for drinking, bathing and cooking. UNHCR pays as much as $15 million monthly for water delivery services in Uganda alone at the Arua Field Refugee Camp. That means hiring subcontractors, which bring tank trucks full of water into the camp from a variety of sources. The IoT system can ensure that the volume of water delivered matches invoiced amounts, and that the high quality of the water can be proven.

"One challenge is monitoring the level and the quality," Dejean states, "so that from a sanitation standpoint, they can assure that the water is safe for use." Poor-quality water can cause disease, so the agency will not accept water with sedimentation or micro-organisms that could result in outbreaks. The system relies on several sensors to accomplish this.

The United Nations installed one or two Kerlink gateways at the reservoir for each of the two sites, and it mounted multiple battery-powered LoRaWAN sensors in the reservoirs. Each water-volume sensor is mounted so that it can detect the level of water as it rises or drops, and the transmission unit attached to the sensor is mounted above the surface of the water, thereby ensuring a long transmission range.

Every day, approximately 630 trucks deliver water at the Uganda site. For each delivery, U.N. personnel onsite record the subcontractor delivering water that day into cloud-based software. As a tanker truck dumps water into the reservoir, the liquid level rises. The sensor measures that rise, quantifies how much has been delivered and links that amount with the subcontractor's data, along with the date and time. Another sensor, mounted at the site at which the water is poured into the reservoir, can detect contaminants.

The sensor data is all being collected in the U.N.'s cloud-based software. The organization can then access data globally for all of its refugee camps. If the system detects a discrepancy between what a contractor charges and what was delivered, an alert can be issued to the necessary officers. Additionally, if water is found to be unsafe—for instance, if the presence of chemicals or bacteria is detected—that alert can be directed to individuals onsite to ensure that the affected water does not contaminate the rest of the reservoir.

The hardware on site is minimal in comparison to the installation of a private cellular network, Dejean says, and that makes it a good solution for refugee camps, which tend to be mobile and very remote. It is designed to be easily taken down and relocated in the event that a refugee camp moves, closes or grows significantly larger.

In the future, UNCHR is considering using the LoRaWAN network at its refugee camps for other purposes, such as managing waste collection. Sensors installed in dumpsters could detect when the waste level requires that a particular dumpster be emptied. An alert can then be sent to UNCHR's staff so that they can prevent an overflow of waste.

What's more, the agency could use the solution to track the condition of the air at each camp, detect any airborne contaminants using wireless LoRaWAN sensors, and then forward that data to a back-end server via the Kerlink gateways. It could also place sensors on the delivery trucks in order to monitor where water was collected, as well as the conditions in which that water was stored until it was received at the reservoir, as long as the LoRaWAN network covers the area in which the vehicle drives.

As UNHCR deploys the water-management solution at additional six camps, the agency plan to employ approximately 1,500 sensors in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Bangladesh.