Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon


In the January of 2020, I traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to engage in a Humanitarian Engineering course at the American University in Beirut with a focus on learning from and about Syrian refugees in the Bekaa region. Through the experience, my team and I conducted a needs assessment, highlighted a specific problem, iterated through multiple potential solutions, and finally built a prototype, and presented our project. We learned a lot in the process about the difficulty of designing within constraints and the desperate need for empathetic, talented, and committed engineers.


Every winter, Syrian refugees in the informal settlements of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon are plagued by flooding that soaks household items within their tents including mattresses and carpets that they sleep on. Due to government restrictions, refugees cannot construct permanent residences that prevent water from entering their households. As a result, refugee families are subjected to health risks associated with flooding, including diseases caused by contact with waste contaminated water, the cold associated with being wet and the respiratory issues of humidity in the tent. Children are most impacted by the flood related damage because they have the most vulnerable immune systems and thereby the greatest likelihood of contracting infections.

There is a need to protect tents from flood-related water so that children will have decreased exposure to risks of diseases.


From our problem statement, we created a list of requirements for our final solution as well as features that would be nice to have. Our intention was to structure our design space without restricting the potential solutions.

Few components that need to be replacedGiven the existing monetary strain on Syrian refugee families, the solution we design must not require many components that need to be replaced in order to decrease the total cost of the intervention over time.
Does not require expert maintenanceThe families we spoke to mentioned that external aid is scarce and difficult to come by. As a result, we need to ensure that our solution is easy for families to install and maintain themselves.
Mobile & RemovableSince the Lebanese government mandates that Syrian refugee settlements must be temporary in nature, any intervention that we design must either be mobile or removable from the home.

In order to make our design feasible and easy to implement, we wanted to be able to adapt our design to locally sourced and readily available materials. Therefor, our goal was to create a framework for a product rather than the product itself.

Design Space

Originally, we considered ideas that would remove water from the homes after floodwaters had entered. We contemplated ideas like mechanical pumps. However, we realized that to truly minimize the spread of diseases after flooding, we needed to prevent water from entering the household during and after the flood entirely. As a result, we started to design an intervention that would seal the refugee tents from flood waters.

Final Design

In order to fully “flood-proof” an individual’s home, we took a four part approach. Each aspect of the approach sought to limit one avenue in which water enters a household.

Way Water Enters SolutionDescription
Underneath Nylon SheetsL-DamsWater enters between the nylon sheets and the floor, so the L-Dams seek to seal that gap by anchoring the nylon sheet walls to the floor.
Gaps between the WallsVelcro & Sealing TapeSince the walls of homes in this informal tented settlement were made of nylon sheets, water enters through the gaps between nylon sheets.
Below the FloorWaterproof MembraneIn most of the homes we visited, carpets were covering the concrete floor. As a result, water can enter up through the soaked concrete in the case of floods.
Through the DoorModified
In order to allow families to enter and exit their home as needed during the flood, a modified L-Dam that can be latched and unlatched will be used.
Table describes how water enters the household and how our intervention addresses each aspect
Diagram of L-Dam

The “L-Dams” can be constructed from sheets of plywood, shipping crates, or another other wooden support available. The waterproof membrane can be made from trash bags or leftover nylon sheets. Rather than choose the exact materials to use, we wanted to build a process that could be modified and adapted to the available resources.

Prototype & Presentation

For the prototype, we used sheets of plywood for the L-Dam and plastic sheets as the water proof membrane.

We’re done, but what’s next?

Traveling to Lebanon, visiting a refugee camp, and working with a truly interdisciplinary team was a wonderful and thought-provoking experience. 

In class, design problems are often times neatly specified. However, the real world offers no such simplicity. Learning to understand and design for the constraints of a real humanitarian environment has given me a richer perspective of how to approach engineering problems in the future. 


Thank you to the Boston University Initiative on Forced Displacement, the American University of Beirut, and my project team for enabling me to learn so much and really open my eyes to the power of engineering in a humanitarian context!

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