By Elissa Jobson
GAMBELA, ETHIOPIA, 27 JUNE 2014 – The swollen Baro river marks the border between Ethiopia and it western neighbour, South Sudan. It’s fast-flowing waters are all that stand between those fleeing the brutal civil war in their home country and safety in Gambella. Dotted along the banks on the South Sudanese side are men, women and children, clutching their meagre possessions, waiting to be transported across the muddy-brown waterway in white plastic canoes. With battered suitcases and woven baskets on their head, those refugees – dusty, exhausted and in need of food and water – who have successfully made the river-crossing trudge towards Burebiey and the UNHCR registration tent, half a kilometre away.
Deng Gatek spent three days waiting to cross the Baro as he tried to scrape together the 30 birr (USD$1.5) fee he needed to secure passage for himself, his wife and his four children. He silently fills his yellow plastic jerry can with crystal clear water from UNICEF’s EM-Wat (emergency water) facility.
“We walked through the bush with hyenas and snakes. Many bad things happened,” Mr Gatek recalls, weariness and relief etched on his face. He can’t remember how many days the journey took from his home in Walang, in Jonglei State, to the border. “It was difficult to find water on the way. When we arrived at the border we were able to drink the river water. The water from the tap is much better than the river water – there is no dirt in it. I can take clean water to my wife and children now. They are at the registration centre,” he adds, pointing to a clutch of tents in the distance.
David Luk Both, himself a refugee from South Sudan, is in charge of the EM-Wat treatment plant. Before the fighting broke out he had worked as a technician for MSF Holland for seven years. “The water is pumped from the river Baro into two 12,000 litre sedimentation tanks,” Mr Both explains. “The water sits in the tank until all the debris and mud has sunk to the bottom; aluminium sulphate is added to help the process. The pH of the water is tested to check the levels of acidity before it is pumped into a chlorination tank that kills all the bugs and germs in the water. It is then ready to drink.”
If needed, Mr Both and his team can provide up to 36,000 litres of clear water a day. “The refugees come all day to the taps. If I don’t treat the water they can’t drink it. I’m very happy because I’m helping my people,” he says.
More than 147,000 South Sudanese asylum seekers have arrived in Gambella since fighting erupted in Juba in December last year. This has placed a tremendous burden on local authorities which were already stretched – Gambella is one of the poorest regions in one of the most food insecure countries in the world, and was host to around 76,000 refugees from South Sudan before the current influx began.
Pel Puoch is head of the Water, Energy and Resources Office in Mokoey woreda (district). Nyien Nyang town, close to Leitchor refugee camp, is under his responsibility. “Before the provision of shallow wells in Leitchor camp, the refugees had started to use the water pumps in Nyien Nyang. This created a burden for the community,” Mr Puoch says. “UNICEF immediately understood the problem and increased its support to the wordea and the burden has been greatly reduced.”
This year UNICEF has installed 9 pumps in Nyien Nyang. There are 35 in total, serving a population of around 18,000, nearly half of which were constructed by UNICEF, including two at the local the hospital.
“The focus of all the NGOs and UN agencies has been on the refugees. At UNICEF, our focus is always on both the host community and the asylum seekers,” says Basazin Minda, WASH officer. “We identified the burden on the local services at an early stage and decided to increase the number of shallow wells in the area in order to create a balance between the host community and refugees.” He believes that the creation of the additional shallow wells and pumps has prevented potential conflicts over this precious resource between the indigenous community and the refugees they have provided sanctuary too.
A new lease of life
Mr Puoch has seen many benefits from the construction of water pumps in the heart of the community. “Having the pumps close to their homes means that the women will save time collecting water. Previously, when they had to go to a faraway pump they would not use the water for hygiene. But because they can access water in the local area at any time, sanitation has improved,” he insists.
“When the pumps were some distance away they would break often. Now they are close to the homes the community takes better care of them.
At Dobrar village, Nyarout Jok, a mother of four, uses the UNICEF water pump twice a day. It’s just 300m away from her home and fetching water now takes less than 20 minutes a day. Before the tap was installed she had to walk over a kilometre each way to the nearest water source, which took at least an hour. “I use the extra time to grind flour and take care of my children,” she says. “I have also returned to education. I’m a grade 5 student.”
So why did she decide to go back to school? “I need to do my own job,” she says. “I will be able to earn my own income and I will become more confident. I want to be either a doctor or an engineer.”