Investigating the Efficacy of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) for Improving Surface Water Management in Humanitarian Settlements

  • Mitchell McTough

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Managing surface water in humanitarian settlements is becoming increasingly challenging as the number of forcibly displaced people rises and the main drivers of displacement shift. While violence, persecution, human rights violations, and armed conflict used to be the primary causes, disasters caused by natural hazards are now playing a more significant role. Many displaced individuals, specifically internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, find themselves in humanitarian settlements, such as IDP or refugee camps. Displacement during a crisis is a complex phenomenon with various implications, often leaving individuals without a safe home to return to in the short term. Fear, loss of livelihood assets, unsafe environments, and legal barriers curtail their return intentions.This protracted displacement leads many IDPs and refugees to spend decades residing in humanitarian settlements, as they lack viable alternatives. In response to the increasingly complex nature of humanitarian crises and the prolonged needs of displaced individuals, the sector has undergone a paradigm shift. Coordination structures have been enhanced to handle mixed cases involving asylum seekers, refugees, and IDPs. Additionally, there is an overlap between development, peace, and humanitarian programmes, all operating simultaneously in the same regions. These responses now strive to work collectively within a humanitarian-development-peace nexus, reflecting new agendas that emphasise sustainable development in the context of global environmental governance.However, despite the supportive policy changes to incorporate sustainable measures, humanitarian settlements still use conventional, unsustainable surface water management systems. This overreliance on conventional drainage infrastructure has wrought the sector's surface water management in a way that has led to many intractable problems. That is to say, camps have high levels of impervious drainage surfaces, low-quality surface water, vector breeding sites, and an almost total absence of integrated natural amenities. Moreover, surface water management practices are fragmented, where practitioners' ownership and responsibility are disorganised and unclear. Despite these shortcomings, an opportunity is presented to ensure that surface water management changes keep up with the sector's changing demands. The question is whether or not sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) are effective for surface water management in these environments.This study introduced a SuDS management train as a pilot project in a refugee camp. A novel, mixed-method action research methodology investigated the system's effectiveness and applicability in the understudied and complex region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. A series of initial reconnaissance and baseline data collection activities were undertaken to understand existing surface water practices, including gathering baseline data on the physical characteristics at the site. Applying an adaptive co-management model to successfully implement SuDS, micro-level (refugees) and meso-level (practitioners) stakeholders were enabled as co-owners and co-constructors of the project. Accordingly, to understand changes and improvements by introducing SuDS in the refugee camp setting, endline data was collected. The findings, which had not been previously recorded or investigated in such a context, indicated that SuDS are an effective solution for surface water management in camps, addressing several problem areas. However, SuDS and any innovations used to improve surface water are ineffective or compromised by existing structural and non-structural practices. Humanitarian crises and the regions in which they occur are diverse and intricate. Thus, one evidence base in one type of camp and one context is insufficient to justify the effectiveness of SuDS for surface water management across the multitude of humanitarian settlements. A cost-benefit analysis (CBA) should be conducted to compare SuDS options with conventional drainage options in IDP and refugee camps, either during the early stages of camp design or as a pilot in a specific camp section. Furthermore, SuDS should be piloted in different humanitarian settlements, to establish a diverse evidence base reflecting a diversity of conditions for SuDS implementation. Future research should explore the impact of funding on surface water management in camps, as funding coordination and mobilisation affect ownership and responsibility for water management. Further research is, therefore, required, and more practical evidence bases created. In light of this, the possibility of affecting policy change for integrating sustainable drainage infrastructure in humanitarian settlements arises.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorSM Charlesworth (Supervisor), Shervin Motamedi (Supervisor) & Safraz Munir (Supervisor)


  • Humanitarian settlements
  • refugee camps
  • IDP camps
  • forced displacement
  • flooding
  • sustainable drainage systems (SuDS)
  • surface water management
  • sustainable development
  • humanitarian-development-peace nexus
  • action research
  • mixed-methods
  • adaptive co-management

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