In 2012, more than 100,000 people fleeing state violence in Sudan sought refuge in newly independent South Sudan. I was in a refugee camp at a place called Jamam working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) as a water and sanitation specialist. My job was to help deliver safe water to the refugees, improve sanitation in the camp, and manage WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) activities at the MSF clinic.

I had just completed my doctoral degree in environmental engineering. It was unusual for someone like me, an academic with advanced degrees in engineering, to do such hands-on work. Most of the time, we academics tend to focus on “original” research rather than on more “applied” science.

But that has got to change. Not since the aftermath of World War II has humankind witnessed such massive and desperate migration. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that as of mid-2015, the total number of refugees globally had passed the 50 million mark—the greatest number of people displaced by war, disaster, and dictatorship in history. Today, there are about 14 million people—mostly women, children, and elders—living in refugee camps around the world, not to mention the millions more displaced within their own countries. There is a role for everyone in this unprecedented moment of crisis, and from what I saw in South Sudan, there is a very specific and important one for researchers and universities.

When the first wave of refugees arrived at the South Sudan border in early 2012, they were in rough shape. They had been on the road, walking for weeks; it was the tail end of the dry season, so there was little to eat and even less to drink, and some had been attacked by militia.

The pressure had been intense to stabilize the refugees at the first available site in South Sudan. UNHCR quickly settled them at Jamam. A few months later, the rains came, and Jamam lived up to the meaning of its name—“swamp.” The camp flooded, latrines were inundated, and diarrheal illnesses and hepatitis E tore through the refugee population. With other aid agencies, MSF worked to improve WASH conditions in the camp and disrupt the transmission of these waterborne pathogens.

One aspect of our response was improving water quality. Emergency water treatment guidelines stipulate target chlorine levels at water distribution points in refugee camps. We worked with the other agencies to achieve these guidelines, but even when we did, we often found that the water in refugees’ shelters was still unsafe. This prompted us to ask: Where did these guidelines come from anyway?

As it turns out, the emergency water treatment guidelines—used by humanitarian agencies the world over—are based on the World Health Organization’s guidelines for water systems in cities. We were stunned to learn that we were trying to apply practices meant for municipal water systems in the radically different context of a refugee camp. The absence of evidence from emergency settings meant that we, as humanitarians, might not be adequately protecting water supplies in refugee camps around the world.

How could humanitarian organizations overlook something so seemingly obvious? Didn’t anyone think to ask where these guidelines came from and how well they were actually working? The fact is the chaos and pressures of humanitarian crises mean that, most of the time, aid workers are just reacting—scrambling to keep up. Field workers are well aware of gaps in the humanitarian knowledge base but need to keep working even with imperfect knowledge. This disjuncture is not limited to WASH; it afflicts all kinds of health interventions in humanitarian crises, impairing the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.

Field data collection on water quality in Gendrassa refugee camp, South Sudan, 2013. (Photo by Syed Imran Ali)

Encountering the chlorination knowledge gap in South Sudan compelled me to launch research on water quality in refugee camps. At my next academic post at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, I studied water quality in environmentally diverse refugee camps in Jordan and Rwanda in collaboration with MSF and UNHCR. My colleagues and I confirmed that the current emergency water treatment guidelines do not ensure safe water at all sites. We are now developing evidence-based water treatment guidelines, which will help improve how safe water is delivered in refugee camps the world over. This is just one example of the role that researchers and universities can play in improving humanitarian response.

How can we address the disjuncture between evidence and action in the humanitarian sector? Aid workers in the field have many questions, but lack the bandwidth, resources, or research skills to investigate them. Academics know how to design research, but do not fully understand the operational context or priorities, while teaching and other institutional obligations restrict their ability to operate in highly dynamic and unpredictable humanitarian field settings.

What we need is a bridging institution that can connect the field to the academy. Such an organization would elicit and collect research priorities from aid workers in the field, and facilitate connections with subject matter experts at universities. Experienced aid workers would collaborate with these university-based experts to design and implement research programs on the field questions. Partner agencies on the ground would facilitate access to field sites where research would be conducted, while university review boards would provide ethics oversight of the research.

For universities, the benefit would come in the form of high-impact research and academic publications, as well as the creation of new training opportunities for graduate students, who are increasingly seeking a socially engaged education. For aid workers, academic-humanitarian collaborations would help advance best practices in the field, enabling their agencies to better fulfill their mandate of protecting the health and well-being of people afflicted by crises.

New funding sources such as the Humanitarian Innovation Fund in the UK have emerged in recent years to support humanitarian field research, but this area remains largely underrepresented in US philanthropy. The work is just beginning, however, and there is great opportunity to multiply activity and impact in this moment of profound global crisis. By doing this work, we bring together the best our universities and humanitarian agencies have to offer to achieve real improvements in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.