Contaminated water hampers the life of the returnees in South Sudan

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 • Melany Markham

carrying waterIn the middle of the Sudanese bush, 200km from the disputed border that runs between South Sudan and the countryís northern neighbour lives a group of around 4,000 people.

Scattered among the trees, scrub and tall African grass, they live in newly built grass and mud huts, the so-called tukuls. They have little else except their homes - no food and no water ñ but these people have returned to the land they fled five years earlier.

They walked for three days, one of the elders of the group explained. That was the middle of last year, when they were forced out after troops from the north occupied the town of Abyei, where they were living. They returned ëhomeí only with what they could carry.

Norwegian Church Aid, a member of ACT Alliance, is providing the basics so the refugees from Abyei can rebuild their lives. Food was distributed in January and by the end of February a number of boreholes had been drilled to provide people with water. The tukuls they are building, will shelter them and their children from the searing heat and the rain, when the wet season begins in April.

dirty water

Alouwat Akol cups her hands as her friend Alouwel Wol pours water into them. The water is the colour of sand and Alouwat says that this is what they have been drinking for the last five months.

Both women collect the water from a pool that is 1.5 hours walk away and they say that it often makes them sick.

Onji Charles is a water, sanitation and hygiene officer for Norwegian Church Aid. Itís his job to provide Alouwat, Alouwel and their families with clean, drinkable water. Onji says that water sources open to the air, such as rivers and dams, are often unsafe to drink.

"This water is contaminated by animals, dust and children washing their dirty hands in the water," says Onji.

In places like this, water borne diseases can be fatal. It is exactly like the water that Alouwat and Alouwel give their children to drink every day. But they have no choice. The dams where they collect this water are the only water source in the area.

NCA has drilled at least 39 boreholes in the area since 2007. Personally, Onji has overseen seven boreholes in the area where Alouwat and Alouwel live. For these people, he is literally a lifesaver.

Boreholes the first step

Pumping waterUnlike the dam water, the water that comes from boreholes is safe to drink. Drilling boreholes is only the first step in making sure villages and communities like these have clean water for years to come.

Boreholes in communities like these are a long way from local authorities, which means the community must take it upon itself to keep the water clean and the borehole in working order.

Maintaining the boreholes and keeping the water source clean are the second and third steps and are inseparable from the boreholes themselves. Onji says that all stages involved in keeping water clean form something called a safe water chain. Starting at the water source it includes collecting, transporting and storing water.

"Water sources must be protected by fencing to keep animals away, they must be properly operated and children must not play on the platform," he says.

Drinking waterOver the years, organisations like Norwegian Church Aid have discovered that the best way to maintain a safe water chain is with a water management committee, made up of people elected from the community and trained how to maintain the well and to keep water clean. When water committees work well, they can maintain boreholes for up to eight years. If a borehole is neglected, it can break down within a year.

Training a water committee pushes up the cost of the average borehole to US$13,000. But if a borehole lasts eight years and supplies 500 people with a daily supply of drinkable water, then it costs only US$3.25 to a year to save a life.

By 2015, an estimated 92 per cent of the global population will have access to improved drinking water.

And it's this practical aspect of his work that Onji is attracted to.

"Saving live by preventing disease outbreaks is what I like the most," he says.