South Sudan: Getting water to thousands of refugees in Upper Nile

The Oxfam drilling team, working to find solutions to improve the water supply. Photo credit: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
The Oxfam drilling team, working to find solutions to improve the water supply. Photo credit: Alun McDonald/Oxfam

Nearly 30,000 refugees from the conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile region have arrived in Jamam – a village in the remote Upper Nile state of South Sudan – since the start of 2012. Oxfam’s team in South Sudan is providing clean water, public health and sanitation in and around the new camp.

With many more people expected to come, Oxfam is scaling up our response. Christian Snoad, Oxfam’s emergency public health advisor, who is leading our emergency water and sanitation response in Jamam, explains our work on the ground. 

The scale up

We moved staff and supplies in to the area late last year in anticipation that a big influx of people could come as the fighting in Blue Nile state, in Sudan, intensified. In December we chartered three planes from Juba (the capital of South Sudan) to bring up staff, food, camping equipment, and equipment such as generators, submersible pumps and water pipes.

Since 5 January around 30,000 refugees have arrived. The first thing we did was consult the communities. It might not seem like the most urgent thing in an emergency, but it makes sure that our response doesn’t have any negative impacts. We don’t want to do anything that could create a dependency culture on aid – instead we want to make the most of the skills, coping mechanisms and strengths that people already have. We wanted to see what the communities can do, rather than just showing them what we can do.

This approach has definitely paid off. We found many people have the skills to build their own bathing shelters and latrines – they just needed the equipment. So this week alone, we’ve helped 600 families construct bathing shelters and 300 build their own latrines – we just provided the tools and materials.

Providing clean water and sanitation

There are no existing clean water sources in the camp, so we have had to truck water in from functioning boreholes a few miles away. The water is trucked in and emptied into bladder tanks – and then we’ve built and connected six tapstands throughout the camp so people can collect it.

We are also providing services such as tapstands for the host community, in order to minimise any potential conflict that could arise with such a big influx. Jamam was home to just 3-4,000 people – now the population has risen tenfold.

We are building communal latrines to improve sanitation, and we have trained 50 refugees to work within the camp to promote good hygiene practices. The camp is a very crowded place – very different from their normal environment – and people are sharing water, with few latrines and soap, so there is a real risk of disease spreading.

The trainees use various participatory methods such as games, meetings, and family visits, to spread messages. We have to try and find innovative ways to get the message across – we have to keep it interesting and keep people engaged. There is a traditional music group in the camp among the refugees, so we are hoping to work with them to inform people about good health practices in the camp.

A drillers’ nightmare

There are many challenges to working in Jamam. To start with, the camp is in a field with many UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) left over from the war. This has also delayed the response a bit because areas have to be checked and cleared before we can excavate the earth to build latrines. It is also on a flood plain and will probably flood in July. So this location is very much a temporary solution – we need to find an alternative place that is away from the flood plains, without any remnants of war, and that has a water supply. Finding all three of these things in one place here is very difficult.

The arrival of so many thousands of people is stretching the natural resources to the limit. This part of the world – this land – is simply not meant to be populated by such large numbers of people. Even if we added together all the available water sources in Maban County (where the Jamam camp is located) it would not be enough to provide all the water we need. There are big ponds called Haffirs in the camp – storing water left over from the last floods. Usually they run dry by April due to use and evaporation, but this year there are so many more people using them that we expect them to dry up much earlier.

The area is a drillers’ nightmare – it has soft and clay that makes it very difficult to dig. We have dug boreholes only to find they have collapsed the next day. There is a good yield of water when you find it – the problem is getting it out. We are getting new water equipment sent up, which will maximise the output of the existing boreholes and help us to set up new ones.

The people here are very easy to work with – at the end of the day they are the ones doing all the work; we are just supporting them.

Published March 2012.

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Oxfam's response to the crisis in Sudan and South Sudan