Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Water: Nary a drop to drink

In any refugee camp, a good, reliable source of clean water must be available. But sometimes, refugee camps end up on impossibly poor sites.

In any refugee camp, a good, reliable source of clean water must be available. But sometimes, refugee camps end up on impossibly poor sites.

More than 275,000 Somali refugees eke out an existence in the eight refugee camps of eastern Ethiopia, a region that historically supported only nomads.

A major problem in Hartisheik and the other camps is water - or rather the lack of it.

The water ration in the eight camps averages five litres a day - far short of UNHCR's global target of 20 litres per day for each refugee. Hartisheik's doctor, Dr. Dereje Abera, says this shortage of water is a contributing factor in the camp's malnutrition rate, which is close to 20 percent for children attending the clinic.

In any refugee camp, a good, reliable source of clean water must be available. It's a basic need, but as places like Hartisheik, or Goma, Zaire, illustrate, water can never be taken for granted. It's a matter of life or death. The provision of adequate, clean water is such a serious requirement that UNHCR employs full-time water engineers to work with other specialist camp planners to ensure supply. But sometimes, for reasons outside UNHCR's control, refugee camps end up on impossibly poor sites.

Eastern Ethiopia is one of those places. After a downpour, its porous soil sucks up all the rain water and the sun bakes the earth until it cracks. On this harsh land live the 59,000 refugees of Hartisheik.

In 1988, when the first few thousand refugees arrived in this parched region, UNHCR and CARE set up an emergency water transport system using tanker trucks that brought the water 80 kms to Hartisheik.

When Somalia's civil war erupted in force a year later, sending up to 400,000 refugees into Hartisheik and other hastily assembled camps in the region, UNHCR struggled to find a better solution.

Test wells were dug around Hartisheik. But, half a kilometre down and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the pipes came up dry. Finally, UNHCR located a new water source in a test well 240 metres beneath the Jerrer valley - 40 kms from Hartisheik.

Eight years later CARE tankers still ferry 690,000 litres of water a day to 159,000 beneficiaries in Hartisheik, Kebri Beyah, Teferi Ber and Darwanaji camps. Since 1988, UNHCR has spent some $20 million on water transport - $2.5 million every year. Donations have already started to come in for a 22-km pipeline which UNHCR is planning to build from the Jerrer valley boreholes to Kebri Beyah, which is located halfway to Hartisheik. Both refugees and returning Ethiopian refugees would benefit. A pipeline could halve the tankers' travel time.

If UNHCR were to help only refugees, additional tension with local communities would be created. So, in addition to the planned pipeline, UNHCR has worked to improve the water situation across eastern Ethiopia. Water catchments built with UNHCR funding dot the region, helping livestock, local residents and refugees alike. Shallow well projects and an experimental 'Haffir' dam (a Sudanese-designed reservoir) are also under construction.

But meanwhile, in the camps, a lack of funds means water is wasted in leaky, 8-year-old distribution networks that receive only minimal maintenance. With UNHCR's care and maintenance budget diminishing year by year, Ethiopia's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) has little money to upgrade and streamline aging distribution lines that stretch through camps like Hartisheik, now half-empty following the spontaneous repatriation of some 200,000 refugees.

The situation is perhaps less depressing elsewhere in Africa. With adequate donor support for other programmes, UNHCR has found the funds necessary to bring water to many camps in zones which are just as parched.

In July 1994, when nearly a quarter of a million Rwandan refugees fled into Kibumba, Zaire - a town built on hard volcanic rock just north of Goma - aid workers trying to deliver clean water in the face of a massive cholera epidemic faced enormous challenges. It was a challenge that UNHCR and its partners eventually met. Today, tanker trucks run back and forth to Lake Kivu, 30 kms to the south, and deliver at least 10 litres of treated water daily to every refugee in Kibumba.

The message is clear: no funding means little or no precious water. A real danger is that Hartisheik's water problems will be repeated elsewhere as funds dry up and refugee populations are forgotten.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)