Do no harm

How UNICEF is using conflict sensitivity strategies in water projects

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
A boy is collecting water
UNICEF South Sudan/Gonzalez Farran
18 May 2020

“In a nutshell, it is really about following the principles of ‘do no harm’, trying as much as possible to avoid negative consequences of our programmes,” says Dr Richard Bowd. He is a conflict and Peacebuilding Specialist, working as a consultant for UNICEF on a water project in South Sudan. The project is aiming at securing clean water for people living in Torit, Yambio, Rumbek and Bor- in a conflict sensitive way. As complicated as that might sound, Bowd says it is fairly easy in theory.

“It is about understanding better what connects people and what divides people, who are the stakeholders and understanding their interests. When this is mapped out, then you can design your project to support the connectors and not the dividers and actively seeking positive ripple effects of the programme such as improved social cohesion.”

But in reality, it might not be that easy. We’ll come back to that in a second. First let’s take a look at South Sudan. The country is huge, actually the size of France, but with a population of just under 12 million. 88 per cent lives in rural areas making service delivery more challenging.

If you look at the map it looks like the house cat just scratched it, but the claw marks are actually rivers running through the country representing the main water source for people. The problem is that the water is not clean. It contains parasites such as Guinea worm, and bacteria in general- especially since the majority of people are still practising open defecation and faeces are contaminating the water. Only 40 per cent of the population has regular access to safe drinking water, the rest is battling the diseases the dirty water brings such as diarrhoeal diseases affecting children the most.

South Sudan has over 60 tribes, with Dinka and Nuer as the largest ones, and just as many languages as tribes. The political conflict between SPLA which is Dinka led and SPLA- In Opposition (IO) which is Nuer led, is the pronounced conflict if you read news articles about South Sudan. However, there are plethora of other inter-communal conflicts that divides and bring people together.

Richard Bowd
Dr Richard Bowd, conflict and Peace building Specialist

One of the key conflicts the projects is faced with is between farmers and cattle keepers. While farmers are staying in one place cultivating the land and in need of water to make the crops grow, cattle keepers are constantly on the move and always searching for food and water for their animals. When these paths are crossing, it can be explosive.

“This is some of the dynamics we are trying to understand in the first phase when designing a project. What can be an answer to this specific problem is to ensure there are multiple taps in the water project. We can build an elevated water tower which is using gravity to push the water to multiple water points. Then you can have one water point outside town making it unnecessary for the cattle keepers to come to town to provide for their animals avoiding clashes between interests. You can even have a designated tap for animals to avoid mixing human and animals to avoid diseases.”

A conflict sensitivity approach is not only about minimizing the negative impact of the programme, but also to increase positive impact.

“We know how access to safe water can have positive ripple effects,” says Bowd. “Clean water improves people’s health, which frees up money used for medicine and time spent caring for the sick and reduce sick days and/or increase productivity. For children it means less days away from school, improving learning outcomes. In South Sudan, fetching water is a task for females. Improved access allows girls to go to school and they don’t have to make perilous journeys to rivers where they are at risk of sexual violence. Easy access can also reduce domestic violence as this is not a topic causing tension between couples anymore.”

A group of people sitting in a cricle
Richard Bowd is performing a focus group discussion in Rumbek to understand better the challenges the population is facing, and how some of these can be addressed through the water project.

A well- designed project also has the potential of transforming conflicts and in the research phase one is actively looking for possible entry points. One way to go about it is looking at the composition of water management committees. Every water point has a local management committee to increase ownership to the intervention but also to do the day-to-day management. Ensuring all the tribes in the vicinity of the water point is represented and are trained in conflict management, can be a unifying factor translating into improved collaboration between the tribes.

While some conflicts are more static such as cattle keepers versus farmers, others are more fluid and rapidly changing such as political conflicts which South Sudan has seen its fair share of.  

While the political conflict often can be seen as it is only on national level, it also trickles down to state, county and village levels, changing who is in power. This is why monitoring and evaluation is essential to a conflict sensitive approach. Not only monitoring and evaluating the actual output of the project, for example number of people benefitting from a water project, but also closely following the situation in the country and make necessary adjustments to the project to mitigate new negative effects.

“This is why a project can look one way at the beginning and very different at the end. Changing your strategy throughout the project doesn’t mean your first strategy was wrong, it means you are listening and looking at what is going on around you and adapting which makes your project more robust and improves positive outcomes - which is what we are aiming for.”

While it is widely known that South Sudan is a conflict affected country and in need of programme approaches that doesn’t fuel them, Dr Bowd claims this approach should be incorporated in every humanitarian or development intervention across the globe.

“I think it is important with a better understanding of what conflict is. It is not only about armed groups shooting at each other. You find conflict in every political and social entity. Everyone who has been married or in a relationship knows that. Conflicts can be good sources for change as it challenges the status quo and prompts new solutions, but it can also be devastating if handled badly. If we realize that every project, whether it is humanitarian or development focused, is done in a context with multiple layers of conflicts and we take them seriously, we would reduce negative effects and enhance the outcome of everything we do.”


The UNICEF water project in Torit, Yambio, Rumbek and Bor is aiming at providing 250,000 people with clean drinking water and is generously supported by the Kingdom of the Netherlands.