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From the River to the Camp: Clean Water for the Landless

© UNICEF/PAKA01947D/Zaidi
Shahrez, a seven-year-old girl, washing her clothes at the community water tab installed by UNICEF at Narul Camp, Muzaffarabad

By Bronwyn Curran

NARUL CAMP, Muzaffarabad, June 22 – The Neelum River swallowed Mohammad Aslam’s house, his three cows, his 50 goats, his dog. It swallowed his entire village and 55 people with it, when the mountain above the steep-sloped village crumbled under the force of the October 8 earthquake and swept all before it into the raging river. In the two-minute window between the quake and the landslide, his wife Shahnaz fled the house. She was pregnant with their first child.

Now Mohammad, Shahnaz, and their baby boy born four months after the October 8 calamity are living in a tent in Muzaffarabad, in one of the 40 sprawling camps for thousands of landless people sheltering in the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

They have no land to return to. There is no road to get there anyway – it too was swept away. The money he made labouring for 16 years on construction sites in Saudi Arabia all went with the house. But Mohammad, Shahnaz and baby Usman Ali have the most important thing to keep them alive and healthy – clean drinking water. And it comes, via a UNICEF-rehabilitated treatment plant and UNICEF-laid pipes, from the Neelum River.

“Before I had to walk to the spring near our village to collect water and carry it home on my head,” Shahnaz says.

Now the water comes to the camp, treated to WHO-standards, through a network of pipes laid by UNICEF from a tank up the hill from the camp. The one-inch black pipes have been laid just in time.

Since the camps mushroomed throughout Muzaffarabad in the wake of the devastating earthquake, UNICEF and a partner aid organization have been trucking clean drinking water in tankers from the city’s Makri treatment plant to 21 of the camps, up to 10 times a day.

The cost is formidable and donor funds cannot sustain the expensive “tankering” system, so partner organizations decided to cease the trucking by June 30.

“If we don’t lay these pipes now, the people will have to leave the camps. There will be no water,” said UNICEF Water and Environmental Sanitation project officer Mohammad El-Faki.

El-Faki, an engineer from Sudan, is frantically organizing the laying and connection of pipes from the city’s main treated water network to the 21 camps under UNICEF’s charge.

Last week he laid several-hundred feet worth of pipes between the Narul camp, where Mohammad Aslam’s family and 600 other landless people have taken refuge, and a water tank on a hill overlooking the camp. The hillside tank receives water from the multi-million dollar Makri treatment plant, on the other side of the city, which draws water from the pounding Neelum River.
The Makri plant ground to a halt after it was damaged by the earthquake. But after a massive rehabilitation effort by UNICEF, the plant is now producing 4.5 million gallons of treated water per day – at double the capacity it operated before the earthquake.

The treated Neelum water, which has been filtered, clarified and chlorinated at the Makri plant, now runs down the new black pipes into a storage tank on the camp grounds, and out again through a structure with 10 taps sprouting life’s elixir.

The taps have become the centre of daily activity at the camp.

At any time of day, a dozen veiled young mothers and teenage girls with braided hair are crowded around the taps washing clothes.

© UNICEF/PAKA01945D/Zaidi
Public health Workers connect Narul camp to the main line of Makri water treatment plant for regular water supply in the camp

Others collect the water into pitchers to bring back to their tents. Little boys stick their heads under the crystal water to soak themselves in the closest they’ll ever come to a heat-beating dip in a pool.

“It’s so hot that I come here at least 10 times a day to wet my face,” said 10-year-old Basharat, from the shattered village of Nari Chakothi along the Line of Control separating the Pakistani-ruled portion of Kashmir from the Indian-ruled side.

Next to him Shahrez, a seven-year-old girl, scrubs clothes along a strip of blue canvas. “I come here every second day to clean the clothes,” she says.
 
“This is easier than before the earthquake,” says Shazia, a 25-year-old mother of two from the distant Neelum Valley. “In my village, we used to have to walk down to the stream to fetch water.”Azizan, a 20-year-old woman, squeezes soapy water out of wet dresses and rakes them against the blue canvas the girls use for washing racks. The white suds spread over copper bangles caking her wrist, wetting the ends of her long red and black head veil.

“We come here every day. We come for everything. To get water for cooking, for bathing, for washing our food,” she says before gathering up her damp laundry and striding back to her tent.
 
Back in Muhammad Aslam’s tent, Shahnaz pours water from a pitcher into a tiny pot with tea leaves and milk and places it over a mini-gas cooker.

Baby Usman stirs from his hot mid-afternoon sleep and Shahnaz wipes him with a towel dipped in the pitcher of water.

In their six months in Narul camp, the family has suffered no water-borne sicknesses. Shahnaz gave birth on the rug inside the tent four months ago, without complication.
Through the flaps of their tent they can see down the corridor of a valley framed by overlapping layers of the mountains that once cradled their home.
“It’s not clear when we will leave this camp. We have no house to go to, and no road to get there anyway. All our livestock is dead. Even if we could get there, we cannot build there. The earth is still moving,” Mohammad laments.
 
“I will have to buy land somewhere else, because there is no place in my village.”
 
El-Faki needs to lay another 10 to 16 kilometres worth of pipes to connect the 21 UNICEF-supported camps to water before the tankering stops.

“For some camps we need 1,000 metres, for others we need 30 metres. Wherever we find the main city lines, we connect the pipes to make sure that water is enough.

Tankering is quite costly and has to stop. But UNICEF will continue until all the pipes are laid, hopefully within a month.”

 

 

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