Flooding in the Sahrawi camps: "We haven’t got time to wait"

Dakhla refugee camp, near Tindouf, Algeria. In 2015, unprecedented floodings cause massive destruction in the Sahrawi refugee camps.
Dakhla refugee camp, near Tindouf, Algeria. In 2015, unprecedented floodings cause massive destruction in the Sahrawi refugee camps.

Between October 16th and 24th 2015, exceptionally heavy downpours caused major destruction in the Sahrawi refugee camps. While heavy rain is a common occurrence in the camps at this time of year, floods have never been seen on such a massive scale before.

No deaths were recorded following this natural disaster, but final assessments revealed severe material damage, especially in the camp of Dakhla. More than 17,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, as well as much of the infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and clinics. Nearly 85,000 people saw their food stocks reduced to nothing.

A few months after the floods, the top priority remains the reconstruction and restoration of homes and institutions. Many families have started to rebuild with the same fragile materials that made up their old homes. It is still an emergency situation.

Bulahi’s story

"When my father called me from the Dakhla camp, that was when I realized something serious was happening to us”, recalls Bulahi Brahim Esmlali, 30 years old. “On  October 19th, the rain began to ravage Dakhla and my father’s neighborhood".

Bulahi portrait. Western Sahara

Built of adobe (dry sand bricks), Bulahi’s father’s house gradually crumbled: "First the kitchen, then the toilets. The next day, the walls and the roof of the entire house fell down. In 24 hours, the house had been destroyed." His father then took refuge in his traditional tent, a safe haven for many Sahrawis, especially older people.

"I had only just come back from Dakhla, where I had taken bread and water to my father, who lives alone, when the rain hit Boujdour and my own house, where I live with my wife." On instinct, his mother-in-law sent Bulahi to find some large plastic tarpaulins, which they used to cover their traditional tent on the morning of 20 October: "That was what saved our tent”, explains Bulahi. That same night, part of the house collapsed: "We welcomed a neighbouring family into our tent. There were eight of us, with the clothes and food we had been able to carry."

Bulahi, 30 años, Western Sahara

For three days and two nights, Bulahi could not sleep. "At night, we were afraid that the weight of the water would cause our tent to collapse. During the daytime, we went to work like everyone else". During the floods, Bulahi, a driver for an NGO, took part in the distribution of emergency supplies in the camps at Aousserd, Laâyoune and Dakhla. Bulahi tries to keep things in perspective. "That’s the mentality here. Everyone carried on working. All the families were affected; the only thing to do was to help the community."

"All the same, my wife would have liked me to stay at home a bit more", he smiles. One month later, Bulahi is still living in his tent. He is getting ready to rebuild his house with the same fragile materials that the Sahrawis use, such as dry sand bricks: "A house made of cement costs three times more. What can we do? We haven’t got time to wait."

Oxfam has been active in the Algerian refugee camps since 1975, working in close coordination with local partners. Oxfam continues to raise awareness about the severe humanitarian situation in the refugee camps globally and calls on international stakeholders to ensure that a fair and sustainable political solution is found.