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In Darfur, handpumps are on the frontline of peacebuilding

© UNICEF Sudan / 2006 / Fromm
A girl fills a jerrycan with water from a handpump at a UNICEF-built water point. UNICEF and its partners are providing access to safe water.

By Dorn Townsend

TAWILA, Sudan, 25 January 2006 – Until recently, 7-year-old Naimat Ibrahim had no easy access to a handpump to collect water for her family. Using the one nearest her home brought her directly into the centre of Darfur’s conflict. What made her 700-metre journey a deadly risk is the pump’s location, for it sits in a vacant, sun-burnt field that in the last several months has become a frightening no-man’s-land – an equal distance between Naimat’s home and the pointing guns of a hillside military camp.

“I usually only come in the morning, before the sun comes up,” said Naimat. “I’m scared the soldiers will shoot at me from the hill if they see me.”

Ever since December when government soldiers overran the town of Tawila, burning homes and ruining wells, the pump has been the only source of safe water for kilometres around. It has become a commodity so valued that residents and soldiers alike fight – and sometimes kill – to quench their thirst. Indeed, this particular handpump has been the site of numerous rapes, beatings, and at least three deaths, including of soldiers shot by rebels.

© UNICEF Sudan / 2006 / Fromm
Women and girls return from fetching water at a UNICEF-supported water point. UNICEF assistance includes the installation of handpumps.

Soldiers and villagers all say they aren’t looking for more trouble – they simply want safe access to safe water. In many ways the pump in Tawila is symbolic of what’s happening throughout Darfur, where animosity has reached such a level that even everyday tasks such as collecting water at a public pump are fraught with aggression, tension and danger. Fortunately, UNICEF’s intervention has alleviated some of the tension in Tawila.

“Basically we had to drill and install a separate pump for the soldiers, so villagers could use the other pump,” said Caesar Hall, a UNICEF Program Officer for Water and Environmental Sanitation in North Darfur. “We did it to stabilize the area so the village wouldn’t all move to camps [for people forced to flee their homes].”

In the last two years UNICEF has drilled and repaired about 2,000 wells and handpumps throughout Darfur. These pumps allow children and millions of others to have access to safe drinking and cooking water, to go to school clean, and wash their clothes. Yet more than that, on this arid patch of earth, UNICEF’s water and environmental sanitation programme is also on the frontlines – at times quite literally – of building and maintaining peace.

In Tawila keeping groups separated seems to be achieving two goals: improving relations and reducing violence. Several days after the new handpump was installed Tawila is aleady a calmer village, and the disputed pump has become a busy public area where villagers gather throughout the day to exchange news and chat. Seven hundred metres away the soldiers approach their own pump without guns drawn.

“What’s happening in Darfur is not good for anyone, but for now I think it’s very wise to have separate pumps,” said Zena Suliman, one mother living in Tawila.



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