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Managing Water, Preventing Disease and Improving Lives: UNICEF and IDP communities in Darfur

Hala and her child pose for the camera during a community meeting in Ottash IDP camp, South Darfur
© UNICEF Sudan/2010/Elena Delgado
Hala and her child pose for the camera during a community meeting in Ottash IDP camp, South Darfur. Behind her, one of the UNICEF-sponsored banners on the upcoming celebration of Hand Washing Day, one of the many activities to promote hygiene awareness

By Elena Delgado – UNICEF Staff

Darfur, August 2010- The harsh realities of the dessert quickly set in as soon as one lands in Darfur, a region about the size of Spain. Here, under the scorching sun, it is easy to understand why water, which many of us take for granted, is a precious commodity. It becomes painfully clear how access to water can be a cause for conflict - survival is at stake.

Years of conflict have affected around four million people all over Darfur. Over half of them are women and children. Forced to flee their villages, having lost everything but their lives, most of them now survive in refugee camps under that infamous status   - Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).  For these people, access to water became even more precious as soon as they arrived – thirst, hunger and disease were their first companions on those camps. And even today, IDPs keep coming by the thousands.

Interventions from agencies such as UNICEF have provided steady relief for millions of people in IDP camps since their inception.  With the generous support from international donors and the combined effort of local partners, a lifeline has been given to entire populations and significant improvements in their life conditions have been achieved.

In the last twelve months, population in Darfur IDP camps has steadily increased due to continued conflict and additional difficulties for humanitarian access in remote areas. The expulsion of 16 NGOs from Sudan last year added additional gaps in the delivery of timely aid. 

All over Darfur, UNICEF and its partners, with generous funding from the European Community Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) have been able to fill the void and provide adequate sanitation, clean water, and equally important - the tools and education for entire communities in IDP camps to work on their own, enabling them to self-manage their water resources, prevent disease through community action and preserve their children’s health. And for a country with such a long history of conflict, IDP communities have surprisingly done it in a peaceful, concerted and effective manner.

With funds from ECHO, 130 UNICEF-sponsored hygiene awareness campaigns launched in the last year have produced effective results all over Darfur´s IDP camps.  Also, installation of water systems, tanks and supply points has increased, for a significant improvement in the living conditions of conflict-affected people in the area, through the mutual efforts of UNICEF and its main partner, Darfur state government’s Water, Environmental and Sanitation project (WES). And communities have responded with active participation, taking the lead in the management of these programmes within the camps.

Almost one million people in Darfur IDP camps have directly benefited from UNICEF/WES activities in the last twelve monthsAlmost one million people in Darfur IDP camps have directly benefited from UNICEF/WES activities in the last twelve months. And these services, along with the voluntary efforts of community groups in the camps, have rendered fruitful results - no cases of cholera or Acute Watery Diarrhoea (AWD) have been reported, the number of households with access to latrines has increased, and the availability of water has improved. 

“Hygiene-awareness campaigns have changed people’s behaviour in a very short time,” says Sanfya El-Dood Caruri, a young sociologist from El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. She administers Abu-Shook, an IDP camp that serves as home to more than 55,000 people. “Volunteer groups of women from the camp, trained in the programme, go door to door visiting their neighbours, to advise them on hygiene and to encourage them to practice good habits. As a result, we are having less sick children and a stronger sense of community” she added.

Community women in Zam Zam IDP camp, North Darfur
© UNICEF Sudan/2010/Elena Delgado
Zam Zam IDP camp, North Darfur. Community women gather to collect solid waste twice a month from specific points around the camp. UNICEF's disease prevention campaigns, funded by ECHO, found wide receptiveness among residents of IDP camps in all Darfur

In Zam Zam, another IDP camp in North Darfur, tools and training have also been provided by UNICEF for hygiene campaigns that have resulted in a positive change of behavior among residents. The establishment of garbage reception points, where the community disposes of solid waste, has been an example of grassroots organization that has brought significant results. Women from the community, twice a month, work as collectors and transport the waste in trucks to a landfill outside the camp. The result of these efforts is a significantly cleaner camp, where children can actually thrive and be healthy, even in the midst of adversity and poverty.

“If the people in these camps are to return to their place of origin, they will take with them the capacity and the knowledge to sustain their own resources and improve their communities,” says Nasser Mahmood Mohammed, Director of WES in North Darfur, who has been involved with community training in the camps for several years. “Beyond the delivery of immediate services and humanitarian interventions, our goal is capacity building as a way to sustainability.”

In Ottash, about 6 Kilometers from Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, people from diverse ethnicities and tribes, perhaps united by the sequels of war and poverty, rely on their community efforts to manage the water supplies in the camp. Pumps, storage tanks, supply points and hand pumps, as well as daily chlorination of the water and measurements on ground supplies, are entirely managed by residents of the camp, with technical advice and supplies from UNICEF/WES.

And the flow of clean water, although never enough, is steady and strong.  “The conditions here were harsh, especially last year,” says Sheikh Mohamed Abu Rahman, community leader at Ottash. “When the aid agencies left, we counted on UNICEF and WES. They trained us, and now we train others. We are now able to handle our water, build our latrines and help in preventing disease. And the community is eager to participate,” he added.

Hygiene awareness campaigns have also been instrumental in the preservation and improvement of health in Ottash, as in many other IDP camps in DarfurHygiene awareness campaigns have also been instrumental in the preservation and improvement of health in Ottash, as in many other IDP camps in Darfur. Gisma Mohamed, in charge of organizing the hygiene campaigns in the camp, remembers how her life was when she arrived at the camp. “We lost everything. We did not know where to go. When we got here, there was not enough water, not enough latrines. Disease was everywhere,” she says. “Now I believe in these campaigns, and I participate actively in them. I have seen the change,” she added. 

Listening to this conversation, Hala, a woman in her twenties, lifts her boy and smiles. “I was afraid for my child – he was born here in Ottash,” she says. “Now I know that even if we are poor and live in this camp, I can still protect my child’s health”.  She hugs her baby, and asks for a picture.



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