International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Saving lives…and the environment

As Earth Day (April 22) approaches we’re taking a look at some of the environmental concerns that arise in humanitarian crises and how International Rescue Committee teams are working to address them.  

The IRC has been working in the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya since its inception in 1992 to shelter southern Sudanese fleeing a brutal civil war.  Kakuma has become an ad hoc town, and 20 years of camp life has had an impact on the environment. Among the emerging concerns are how to address a growing litter problem within the camp, how to properly dispose of solid waste, and how to meet the sanitation needs of disabled residents.
TURKANA, Kenya—Haron Emukule, the IRC’s environmental health manager for the massive Kakuma refugee camp, brings me to an unassuming lot named Sanitation Site 2, where staff in blue jumpers hand-mix concrete that will be poured and molded into latrine slabs. 
“This was our first design,” Haron explains to me, pointing out the slabs’ circular, convex shape. Each slab requires one bag of cement and takes 21 days to cure. When ready for installation, they weigh 240 kilograms (about 530 pounds). On average, 7 percent of the slabs are discarded due to cracks that form during the production process. Even the good slabs last but three years before they must be replaced. 
These issues prompted Haron and his team to begin thinking of new ways to build latrine slabs. “We wanted to find a way to improve the slab design,” he explains, “to make it lighter, stronger and less expensive per unit.”
Further down the lot, I see the result of the team’s innovative brainstorming: thin, rectangular slabs reinforced with iron mesh. Each of these slabs require only a half bag of cement and weigh 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds). While Haron and his team have only begun producing the new slabs, they expect them to last three times longer than the domed version. Even better, the new design reduces the square footage of corrugated iron needed for the walls of the latrine. It’s no wonder that more and more refugees are asking for the rectangular slabs for their family latrines. 
Yet the improved slabs are not the pièce de résistance for the IRC’s environmental health team in Kakuma. Looking over a neat row of model latrines bordering Sanitation Site 2, I spot two sheathed in iron sheets next to three made of a very different material. “These are our polymat latrines,” Haron proudly tells me, opening the door to one of the pilot designs to reveal a comfortable latrine that provides privacy and better air flow.
“Polymat” is the IRC’s term for the flexible woven material made from plastic sheets and bags salvaged from camp litter and recycled by local women’s groups. Although the IRC facilitates the training of many of these women, the groups are independent organizations that produce the polymats for income. 
Fatuma Hamadi Emberwa is a member of one of the refugee women's group that weaves the polymats.
(Photo: Jane Yang/IRC)
Take Fatuma Hamadi Emberwa, 38, for example. Fatuma and her family fled Somalia in 1992 and settled in Dadaab Refugee Camp in northeastern Kenya, where she learned to make polymats. In 2005, she and her family were transferred to Kakuma. Here she began to teach other refugee women the five-step process to create the unique product: collect and sort plastic, wash it, set it out to dry, twist it into tight cords and, finally, weave the strands into 1m x 1m mats. The process takes about two days. 
The IRC buys polymats from women’s groups at KES 200 ($2.32) each; it takes 14 to build a latrine. That translates into a savings of KES 2000 ($23.20) per latrine compared to corrugated iron.
Standing under a large tree, Fatuma explains the procedure to me while her group weaves, making a colorful picture. She and her husband were farmers in Somalia, but now Fatuma is the sole breadwinner. “We have children who go to school and need supplies,” she says. “This project is also making the camp cleaner, which is better for our health.” 
For Haron, the polymat latrines are an exciting innovation that he hopes will be introduced across the camp. Since the pilot program began in February 2011, the IRC has garnered the support of other partners in Kakuma, including the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). 
The IRC’s environmental health team has a few more projects in the works, including the installation of specially designed latrines that are accessible to camp residents living with disabilities. They are also looking at other recycling ideas: Melting down harder plastic containers to create bases for the latrine frame poles, an ingenious way to combat termites. 
I ask Haron how he feels being in charge of a program with so many dynamic components. He grins before offering his humble reply: “This is our everyday.” 
two members of a Somali Bantu women's group weave polymats
The polymat project provides an income for members of the camp's women's groups. 
(Photo: Jane Yang/IRC)

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i love humanitarian work.but

i love humanitarian work.but recently I was coned by someone who disguised himself as one of your staff and promised of a job once i settled air ticket payments from JKIA nairobi.I regret but still optimistic that I will get a job with IRC as a public health officer.

Dear John: Thank you very

Dear John:

Thank you very much for your interest in working with the IRC. We are sorry to hear about your experience, and greatly appreciate that you flagged it for us. We encourage you to contact the police or call the IRC Nairobi office if you think you have been scammed by someone posing as an IRC employee. You can find contact details in the public alert: disclaimer copied below.

For IRC career opportunities, please visit our website at

Thank you again and good luck,

All of us at the IRC



The Management of International Rescue Committee (IRC) Kenya, wishes to inform the general public that it has come to our attention that some unauthorized individuals and groups have been posing as IRC recruiters or local agents of the organization.  These individuals have extorted monies from unsuspecting members of the public with promises of jobs opportunities with IRC.

They typically use social media sites, SMS and campus recruitment flyers, and are targeting recent graduates. The general public should please take note that all vacant IRC jobs are only advertised either in the local print media or on our website Applicants and/or successful interview candidates are NOT required to pay any fees at any stage of recruitment. NO local agents have been appointed to recruit staff for ANY IRC field or country office.

If you believe you have fallen prey to such a scam, you are encouraged to report such individuals/groups to the nearest police station, the CID Nairobi Office or contact IRC on +254733344443, 020-2727730, 2720003. Your cooperation in will assist in the apprehension and prosecution of these individuals.

Mohamed El Montassir

Deputy Director Operations

Fantastic article, Jane! It's

Fantastic article, Jane! It's wonderful to learn of such great, multifaceted IGAs. Thanks for sharing and looking forward to future updates.

That was very. Creative. Of

That was very. Creative. Of you!! Keep it up!!

Quite an ingenous way for

Quite an ingenous way for Haron, his team and the women to take care of the polythene bags problem,reduce latrine construction costs,generate a livelihood for the women,preserve human dignity and keeping the vast camp environmentally healthy.In more ways than one,Polymats saves lives.... and the environment.