From the River to the Camp: Clean Water for the Landless
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”