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Getting water to thousands of refugees in Upper Nile

Posted by Christian Snoad Emergency public health advisor

16th Mar 2012

Nearly 34,000 refugees from the conflict in Sudan's Blue Nile region have arrived in Jamam - a village in the remote Upper Nile state of South Sudan - since the start of 2012. Oxfam's team in South Sudan is providing clean water, public health and sanitation in and around the new camp. With many more people expected to come, Oxfam is scaling up our response. Christian Snoad, Oxfam's emergency public health advisor leading our emergency water and sanitation response in Jamam, writes.

The scale up

We moved staff and supplies into the area late last year in anticipation that a big influx of people could come as the fighting in Blue Nile intensified. In December we chartered three planes from Juba (the capital of South Sudan) to bring up staff, food, camping equipment, and equipment such as generators, submersible pumps and water pipes.

Since 5 January around 34,000 refugees have arrived. The first thing we did was consult the communities. It might not seem like the most urgent thing in an emergency, but it makes sure that our response doesn't have any negative impacts. We don't want to do anything that could create a dependency culture on aid - instead we want to make the most of the skills, coping mechanisms and strengths that people already have. We wanted to see what the communities can do, rather than just showing them what we can do.

This approach has definitely paid off. We found many people have the skills to build their own bathing shelters and latrines - they just needed the equipment. So this week alone, we've helped 600 families construct bathing shelters and 300 build their own latrines - we just provided the tools and some materials. Altogether so far we've helped construct nearly 4,000 bathing facilities and over 1,500 household latrines.

Providing clean water and sanitation

There are no existing clean water sources in the camp, so we have had to truck water in from functioning boreholes a few miles away. The water is trucked in and emptied into bladder tanks - and then we've built and connected ten tapstands throughout the camp so people can collect it.

We are also providing services such as tapstands for the host community, in order to minimise any potential conflict that could arise with such a big influx. Jamam was home to just 3-4,000 people - now the population has risen tenfold.

We are building communal latrines to improve sanitation, and we have trained 50 refugees to work within the camp to promote good hygiene practices. The camp is a very crowded place - very different from their normal environment - and people are sharing water, with few latrines and soap, so there is a real risk of disease spreading. The trainees use various participatory methods such as games, meetings, and family visits, to spread messages. We have to try and find innovative ways to get the message across - we have to keep it interesting and keep people engaged. We are working with several traditional dancing and singing groups, and a drama group that performs plays about good health practices.

A driller's nightmare

There are many challenges to working in Jamam. To start with, the camp is in a field with many UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) left over from the war. This has also delayed the response a bit because areas have to be checked and cleared before we can excavate the earth to build latrines. Much of the camp is also on a flood plain and will probably flood in June. So this location is very much a temporary solution - we need to find an alternative place that is away from the flood plains, without any remnants of war, and that has a possible water supply. Finding all three of these things in one place here is very difficult.

The arrival of so many thousands of people is stretching the natural resources to the limit. This part of the world - this land - is simply not meant to be populated by such large numbers of people. Even if we added together all the available water sources in Maban County (where the Jamam camp is located) it would not be enough to provide all the water we need. There are big ponds called Haffirs in the camp - storing water left over from the last floods. Usually they run dry by April because of use and evaporation, but this year there are so many more people using them that we expect them to dry up much earlier - some have already run dry.

The area is a driller's nightmare - it has soft clay that makes it very difficult to dig. We have dug boreholes only to find they have collapsed before we could race to complete them. There is a reasonable yield of water when you find it - the problem is getting it out. We are getting new water equipment sent up, which will maximise the output of the existing boreholes and help us to drill new ones.

The people here are very easy to work with - at the end of the day they are the ones doing all the work; we are just supporting them.

Oxfam's work in Sudan

Blog post written by Christian Snoad

Emergency public health advisor

More by Christian Snoad