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Frontline Diary

14 July 2004: Searching for water in the rainy season

© UNICEF/HQ04-0287/Nesbitt
UNICEF communication officer James Elder in Nyala, South Darfur
James Elder has just completed his temporary posting for UNICEF in Nyala, South Darfur. In the last of his personal diaries he describes how water shortages are affecting Darfur’s people.

DARFUR, 14 July 2004 – I am looking for a boy and his donkey. Any will do, and normally there are scores. As the sun warns Darfur of another scorcher, these boys and their sullen (but unflagging) pack animals carry sustenance for this tortured part of Sudan. Although currently afflicted by conflict and displacement, Darfurians continue about their tasks, fulfilling their daily needs, of which water is number one.

As for me, well, I just want a bucket shower, but the water drum where I am staying is empty, and so I need to find myself a donkey hauling water. Finally three boys and their donkeys race towards me, eager to start their day with a sale. It’s an odd sight – waterless me, watching these three boys on their donkeys race through the quagmire that is Nyala, south Darfur, a morning after rain.

In the end, to the slight disappointment of the winner – but the glee of second and third – I buy a little from each. Through an Arabic speaking colleague I talk to the boys while they fill up the barrel. Each began their day at 5 a.m. Each will make perhaps a dozen trips to the edge of town, where a pump supplies free water. All three have younger sisters who wait there, filling up their buckets so that their brothers can save time. On days when the queue is too long the girls walk further to another source and then come back to meet the boys and their donkeys. This is their day. This is their childhood – defined by water.

Finding clean water is perhaps the single greatest daily challenge for 1.2 million displaced people in battle-scarred Darfur.

UNICEF is combating this problem on multiple fronts. By constructing hundreds of water pumps, building miles and miles of pipelines and supplying thousands of jerry cans to displaced people, UNICEF aims to double the amount of clean water it provides within eight weeks, taking it to 600,000 displaced people. It won’t cause the boys and their donkeys to lose their jobs, but it will save lives.

But as UNICEF seeks to boost its distribution it is faced with the bitter paradox of helping displaced people cope with much unwanted water, in the form of rain. Normally, seasonal rains are a blessing, but with violence having deprived these people of a planting season, this year’s rains – in many places torrential – bring nothing but grief to people whose temporary homes are often flimsy and ill-equipped, and whose camps run the risk of an outbreak of water-borne diseases.

In more than a dozen visits to camps, I saw this threat being tackled in many ways. A measles campaign has just vaccinated more than two million children, thousands of latrines are being built, hundreds of hygiene educators have been trained, and thousands and thousands of hygiene packs have been distributed.

It’s a mighty effort, and the results are healthier camps across Darfur and healthier children, but the standard remains low, and the challenges remain great. Only a massive push by the international community now will help stabilize the situation. Failure will mean that many of the boys and girls of Darfur will die.



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