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Funding cuts leave Saharan refugees high and dry

Funding cuts leave Saharan refugees high and dry

Lack of sufficient funding means that the UN refugee agency has postponed for yet another year needed improvements in the water distribution network for one of the oldest refugee camps in the world.
24 October 2002
Western Saharan refugees in Tindouf, Algeria, making their daily trek across the sweltering desert for water.

TINDOUF, Algeria, October 24 (UNHCR) - In a region where temperatures in the shade hover well in excess of 50ºC for much of the year, water is vital to sustain human life for one of the world's most protracted refugee communities - Western Saharan exiles in Algeria.

But the refugees have been left high and dry after funding shortfalls at the UN refugee agency forced it to postpone needed improvements in their water distribution network for yet another year.

It has been more than 26 years since thousands of Western Saharan nomads fled to remote sites in neighbouring Algeria as warfare erupted between Western Saharans and Morocco following Spain's withdrawal from its former colony. Today, the exiles are completely dependent upon aid agencies and their donors for vital relief assistance.

Four wind-whipped refugee camps now in their third decade of precarious existence dot the dusty region. Food aid, frequently insufficient due to inadequate donor support for the nearly forgotten refugees, must be trucked across thousands of kilometres of remote desert after being off-loaded at one of Algeria's distant Mediterranean seaports.

According to Algerian government estimates, some 165,000 Western Saharan refugees live in the camps that surround this historic desert trading post on the country's border with Western Sahara.

For refugees in camps like Awserd, their exile seems without end. For some variety - in addition to the stale Arabic- and Spanish-language television programmes they now receive on their sand-blasted satellite antennas - the refugees trudge daily to the nearest cistern, where they must line up early in the morning to collect the water they need to survive and to wash.

"The water tanks are far away, and on top of what we need, I also collect water for the old lady who lives next door," said refugee Rafaa Mohamed Salem. "It's really difficult, the jerry cans weigh a ton, but most of all it's the sand that makes walking anywhere practically impossible."

Ideally, each refugee should receive 20 litres of water a day, but Awserd's refugees say they receive far less.

According to the UN's minimum standards, Lalla Omar Shad and her five children need at least 120 litres of water a day, or some 3,600 litres a month. But she said she could collect only 1,000 litres a month, less than a third of what she and her children need to survive.

And the fragile lifeline upon which she depends for the water often has its own problems. The water is delivered by tanker trucks to barrels located throughout the camp, but delays or accidents can mean that Lalla and her children will not get the water to meet even a fraction of their daily needs.

"Even the smallest problem with the truck, like a puncture, can affect the water distribution schedule, and as a result, the amount of water we get," she said. "Since I started living here in 1987, the same truck has been delivering water twice a day - originally for 6,000 of us, but since then more people have moved in. Women who live further away have a particularly difficult time transporting the 20-litre jerry cans home over the thick dunes."

The UN refugee agency has long been aware of the struggle facing the Western Saharan refugees around Tindouf, and has been working to expand a network of piping and deep wells so that refugees can get clean water from spigots located closer to their homes.

But money is a problem. A lack of funds from donor states has forced UNHCR to cut its global budget twice this year, from $802 million, to $726 million and now down to $710 million. It is still short $80 million. Gone with the belt-tightening is the $43,000 needed to expand Awserd's water distribution system to help Lalla and her neighbours.

For now, at least, Awserd's refugees continue to trudge through the sand with sloshing jerry cans brimming with water, no easy task when they have to cross hundreds of metres of thick sand in the sweltering heat.

Hassan Abalah grew up in a nomadic family when his homeland was still a Spanish colony. Now an old man, life in exile is tough, especially due to the lack of water near his shelter.

"When my grandchildren are at school and we urgently need water, I have to go and get it," said Hassan. "It's pretty exhausting at my age to have to do that, and the water tanks are 300 metres across the hot sand."

Collecting water is not easy for anyone, whatever their age. Mohamed Lamine spends his mornings in school. But as soon as classes end, he must help his family.

"When I get back from school, I help my mother by delivering water to the house, but we live across the dunes from the tanks," said Mohamed. "It's really tiring. Even though the jerry cans are small, once they are filled up, they get heavy. I have to stop many times on the way back to rest."

UNHCR requires $4.6 million to fund its activities for Algeria's Western Sahara refugees. It has so far received only $1.6 million earmarked from the United States, Japan, Spain and a private donor, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie. The agency will have to depend upon cash from its far-overstretched annual programme budget to meet the urgent needs of Awserd's refugees, like keeping the water trucks supplied with spare tires and inner tube patch kits.