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

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

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)




UNHCR country pages

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Provision of clean water and sanitation services to refugees is of special importance.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


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