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Roots in Exile

Roots in Exile

A temporary settlement for refugees from the Syrian war

By Marta Fernández Cortés

The current refugee crisis has highlighted the urgent need to improve design strategies for refugee camps, to make them more liveable, sustainable in the mid-term and culturally adapted to their inhabitants, empowering refugees to become the designers of their own living spaces. This project addresses improvements to a huge, dynamic camp in a very arid region, by focusing on water.

Following the outbreak of Syrian war in 2011, millions of people had to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Roots in Exile focuses on the Za’atari camp in Jordan, one of the many refugee camps that have emerged from this critical humanitarian crisis, which covers some 521 hectares divided into 12 districts and houses around 83,000 displaced people. Large investments were needed to finance emergency structures here (housing, water, electricity), which, due to their temporary nature, soon became obsolete and inefficient. At the same time, the life force of the resident refugees has been transforming the camp into a nascent city.

The Zaatari Refugee Camp opened in July 2012 in a former military compound in the middle of the desert. Its urban form evolved rapidly – due to demographic change and the mobility of the temporary architecture – becoming a very dynamic settlement. This proposal seeks to rethink its urban organisation by linking water-treated avenues to the existing wadis – or intermittent desert rivers. It also seeks to provide new urban alternatives that improve the existing infrastructural deficit and at the same time increase the resilience of an “almost city” in constant transformation.

Roots in Exile

Aerial view of the Zaatari Refugee Camp, 18 July 2013. Image: Public Domain

Jordan is one of the world’s driest countries, which is why water has a primary role in the proposal. This project seeks the minimum infrastructure needed to generate a more flexible, resilient and sustainable settlement. Water sanitation and reutilisation are resolved within the streets’ fractal hierarchy, allowing a minimisation of the energy consumption of transport. This minimum urbanisation lays the foundation for a self-constructed settlement, where the inhabitants are empowered as active designers of their living environment.

Roots in Exile

Zaatari Refugee Camp current situation. © Marta Fernández Cortés

Roots in Exile

Zaatari Refugee Camp situation five years from now. Roots in Exile proposal. © Marta Fernández Cortés

Each district of the refugee camp is divided into smaller communities, organised around a central square with a water tower that provides water by gravity to each housing unit. Smaller squares around it contain photovoltaic pergolas providing electricity to each household. After domestic consumption, blackwater is conveyed to nearby “filter streets”, which combine water treatment through a reed bed biodigestor with a horizontal subsurface flow system. After processing, filtered water is stored in cisterns placed on “orchard streets”, which guarantee irrigation water throughout the year. All the cisterns are linked and connected to the “wadi promenade”. In the case of overflow during the rainy season, water is returned to the aquifer in a controlled area or “recharging basin”. As a result, all water treatment utilises minimum pathways, also minimising transport energy.

Roots in Exile

Aquifer recharge. © Marta Fernández Cortés

The proposed housing units would be built with prefabricated quincha, a construction method that uses mud, reeds, wood and plaster. These low-cost materials are accessible within the region and some within the camp. The construction of housing units combines prefabrication and self-construction processes, and can involve residents in all phases, while the prefabrication of the quincha panels guarantees sufficient construction performance. At the same time, supervised self-construction allows flexible housing distribution and sizes, adaptable to the needs of each household. This multiplicity of solutions is an alternative to typical standardisation and the extreme monotony of most planned emergency settlements.