Troubleshooting UNHCR technicians get to work on Dili's crowded camps

News Stories, 11 July 2006

© UNHCR/A.Rummery
UNHCR has set up a mobile technical team to help sanitation and water agencies improve facilities for displaced people in several camps in Timor-Leste capital Dili.

DILI, Timor-Leste, July 11 (UNHCR) Whether it's fixing a gushing tap, unblocking a drain or laying concrete to prevent mosquitoes breeding in ponds near water outlets, UNHCR's new mobile technical team is working hard to improve drainage and help prevent disease in Dili's crowded camps.

Now that new tented camps have been established and the most urgent shelter improvement work is complete, UNHCR site planners are helping the water and sanitation agencies to address urgent problems.

The UN refugee agency has hired a troubleshooting team of skilled workers including a carpenter, plumber and general hand from among the tens of thousands of people displaced in the Timor-Leste capital since rival armed groups first clashed in late April. They will carry out simple repairs and technical jobs, with a focus on drainage issues.

UNHCR's emergency team leader, Vanno Noupech, said the mobile technical team concept had been used by UNHCR in other emergency situations, particularly where there was a proliferation of camps with varying conditions.

"The idea is to respond quickly to problems that pose a health risk, complementing what other specialist agencies are doing and working in close concert with the water and sanitation coordination group," said Noupech.

"Overflowing septic tanks and blocked drains can lead to cholera and typhoid, stagnant wash water collecting in ponds is a magnet for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and poor bathing and clothes washing facilities can lead to poor hygiene practices," he added.

In recent days, the mobile technical team has begun fixing drains and improving water points in several sites. On Saturday, the new team swung into action at the Seminario Menor in Dili's Lihane Timur area. Just a few months ago, the complex was home to 87 seminarians, four priests and six other staff today it hosts some 1,700 people displaced in various waves since late April.

While the rows of toilets, showers and washbasins seem adequate for the 100 or so people they normally serve, the sanitation and drainage system is struggling to cope with the new population.

"One problem is that people have been showering in the toilet cubicles and the sewerage system has been unable to cope with the excess of water. A mix of sullage [domestic waste water] and sewage is overflowing into the open drains ... that normally carry only used wash water," said UNHCR site planner Leonie Walker.

One of the mobile team's first tasks was to make 15 wooden lids for the toilets, so that if people do shower in the cubicles the water stays out of the sewerage system. Another task has been fixing the many broken taps.

"Broken taps have let gallons of water gush into the washing room, clogging further the overburdened drains and creating inches of stagnant water in the ablutions block for people to wade through," Walker said.

Across Dili at the National Central Pharmacy, the mobile team was on Tuesday installing washing points and privacy screens over a proper drainage system. More than 1,000 displaced people have set up camp at the site, normally a storage and distribution point for pharmaceutical products. UNHCR has provided tents, blankets and plastic sheeting, but drainage remains a problem.

"People gather to wash themselves and their clothes around a water tank where there is just no adequate drainage to cope with the excess water," said Walker.

Large ponds of stagnant water have collected near these taps, attracting pigs and mosquitoes. "This newly created swamp is great for the pigs and mosquitoes, but not so great for the health and hygiene of the IDPs [internally displaced people] living at the site," Walker noted.

The UNHCR mobile team has moved the wash point to a concrete area with good drainage and installed a pump to carry the water to a town drain.

The team has also installed screens with timber frames and plastic sheets to create male and female wash rooms around the new taps.

While Dili has been increasingly calm over the past week, with more shops re-opening, schools resuming and traffic on the streets, there has been no large-scale movement of displaced people back to their homes.

"While the signs are good that conditions for return of people to their homes could be imminent, UNHCR continues to do what it can to address urgent health risks in priority sites around Dili," said UNHCR's Noupech.

By Ariane Rummery in Dili, Timor-Leste