By Linda Unger*
June 4, 2014—Slowly roasting in the heat of the mid-day sun, residents of El Saharig in East Darfur State line up just outside the local water yard with their donkey carts, horse carts, camels, and on foot to draw clean, safe water into barrels, tanks, and jerry cans and bring it home to their families.
The dusty line bunches up at the entrance to the yard, which is ringed by homes of dry grass and thatch and by a few trees. Everyone and everything, including the endless sand under foot is tinged with a slight harsh blue, a reflection of the cloudless sky above. The “line,” a loose term, may not be straight, but on a recent Saturday in May, it was orderly, patient and peaceful.
Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a father of six, comes every day to the El Saharig water yard to draw water for his family. It used to be, he says, that people would wait for hours on such a line, only to have some neighbors cut in—anxious for their turn—and violent fights break out.
Between sand and sky, villagers of El Saharig in East Darfur State, Sudan, line up just outside a water yard recently renovated by UMCOR. Every day, 15,000 people draw water from this source. PHOTO CREDIT: Sharad Aggarwal
But the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) refurbished the water yard, overhauling the pipeline that feeds the taps, building new tap stands, and repairing the elevated storage tanks, among other improvements.
Now, Ahmed says, he waits only about 20 minutes for his turn at the tap, and conflicts around the scarce resource have diminished. Every day, the water yard is used by some 15,000 residents of both El Saharig and nearby El Neem Camp for persons displaced by the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region.
“There is less competition because there is more water available. The water is pure, and not contaminated. There are separate taps for humans and for animals, so there is less risk of disease,” Ahmed says. “I appreciate UMCOR for the great service it has provided.”
Where there is no water: A litany of consequences
Geoffrey Weyinda, a Kenyan national and manager of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects for UMCOR’s field office in Sudan, says simply, “Water is life.” It is particularly so in Sudan, threatened as it is by severe land degradation, desertification, and continuing armed conflict. Where water is in short supply, Weyinda adds, the consequences are many and dire.
“We have people going hungry because they don’t have water for cooking. So, you find malnourished people,” he explains. “Sometimes when you go to the villages, you see people with eye diseases, which could have been avoided if they’d had clean water. Then there are the dangerous, even lethal, diarrheal diseases like cholera.
UMCOR Sudan WASH Manager Geoffrey Weyinda (left) checks the water level at the hafir, or reservoir, in the village of Abu Senedira, East Darfur State, Sudan. PHOTO CREDIT: Linda Unger
“In a place where there is no water, people lack any means of livelihood,” he says, continuing the litany. “Women walk very long distances to find water—sometimes six or seven hours under the heat of the sun—which affects their health and disrupts their family life.
“A place that has no water has no alternative foods,” he indicates. “The people lack the means to plant vegetables to supplement their diet, and they become physically weak.”
And in the case of Darfur, Weyinda says, the lack of water is a source of stress and conflict, between nomadic herders and local farmers, and simply among neighbors. “You may see that your neighbor has found a way of getting one or two buckets of water and you don’t have any, and you want to get that water, and that becomes a source of conflict, and it feeds the ongoing conflict in Darfur.”
UMCOR’s WASH strategy in Sudan
With funding from the U.S. Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the Darfur Community Peace and Stability Fund (DCPSF), UMCOR is helping to provide safe water for parched communities in Sudan.
UMCOR works with local communities, the Sudanese government and nongovernmental organizations (both local and international) to provide communities, especially in East Darfur State, with “potable water at an accessible distance,” Weyinda says. “We do this by building the water sources that we think are cost-effective.”
In Abu Senedira, a village near the border with South Darfur State, UMCOR completed construction of a vast hafir (or reservoir) that will supply safe water to some 10,000 people. Whereas in El Saharig the water source was a deep borehole—300 meters, or more than 984 feet—deep enough to strike oil in some places—here the source is rainwater.
During a recent visit to the hafir, the water level was low—in anticipation of the start of the 2014 rainy season. As the reservoir fills up, the water will travel underground to a filtration system of graded rocks and sand, and then be carried by gravity to a holding tank. As the water passes through the layers of graded rock and sand, impurities in it stay behind, and what gets to the holding tank is clean water. From there, it will be pumped into an elevated storage tank and flow by gravity to a tap stand, where villagers will draw the clean, potable fluid.
Here as in El Saharig and elsewhere, UMCOR trains water user committees, composed of local residents, to monitor and maintain the water source. In Abu Senedira, the committee also makes sure the fence that surrounds the hafir remains intact, so villagers do not bring their animals directly to the reservoir and potentially contaminate the drinking water.
“Before the hafir was built, there was no water source at all in this community. Now there is,” says Harin Mohammed, who heads the Humanitarian Aid Commission for the local government in El Ferdous Locality (or county), which includes Abu Senedira. “In the name of the people of El Ferdous, I thank you, UMCOR.”
Weyinda says UMCOR is looking into other means of rainwater harvesting like the hafirs. “In the rainy season, East Darfur gets a lot of rain, but all this water goes to waste. So, if we have mechanisms for tapping the rainwater and using it during the dry season, it would be much better,” he says.
He adds that UMCOR also will look into using solar power to fuel the pumps that extract the water from the deep boreholes. Right now, these are run by costly diesel generators.
Water may be life, as Weyinda says, but there are many obstacles that stand in the way of procuring that vital essence.
“First of all, the needs are so many,” he says. “Every day we have people coming to the UMCOR office requesting something related to water. They may travel 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) on foot or donkey, under the hot sun. They are looking at you, there, in the office, expecting that you will have the answers to their problems, but often you must tell them we haven’t enough funds.”
UMCOR is currently one of very few international NGOs that are implementing WASH projects in East Darfur, Weyinda indicates. As financial support for this important work becomes scarce, other organizations have put their programs on hiatus—and have at times referred potential beneficiaries to UMCOR.
Related to this challenge is that of cost. Because the water table in much of East Darfur is so deep, the cost of drilling is high. Add to that the cost of the physical investigations that must be completed before drilling can even start. “If you drill without carrying out those investigations, you will be more likely to spend a lot of money and, at the end of the day, you may not get water,” Weyinda says.
And then there is the environment itself. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) reports that Sudan “faces critical environmental challenges, including severe land degradation, deforestation, desertification and the impact of climate change.” While the conflict in Darfur has decreased from the levels of 2003 to 2005, weapons are everywhere and violence erupts without notice, forcing people from their homes and interrupting humanitarian efforts like those of UMCOR. And then there is the very long and invasive reach of the Sudanese government: red tape, bureaucracy, and ever-changing rules.
UMCOR has been working in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2006 and remains committed to accompanying the Sudanese people as they seek peace, stability, and growth. Water must flow through all these efforts. Your gift to Sudan Development Projects, Advance #184385, provides vital support.
*Linda Unger is senior writer for the General Board of Global Ministries. She recently traveled to Sudan to report on UMCOR programs there.