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Breaking the cycle of disease: How UNICEF’s water and sanitation programme is helping save children’s lives in conflict-affected Darfur

Amira filling water from UNICEF-supported temporary water bladders in Zamzam
© UNICEF Sudan/2011/Priyanka Khanna
Amira filling water from UNICEF-supported temporary water bladders in Zamzam

By Priyanka Khanna

Zamzam (North Darfur State), 10 May 2011 – Amira says she is 15 but looks much older. In the last five months, her family has had to move three times because of the ongoing instability in North Darfur. Her mistrustful eyes hint at the hardships she has faced in her short life.

Reluctantly and quietly she recounts how she and her family moved from their home in Shangil Tobaya to a nearby camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP). Violence in the area forced them to walk for days before arriving at Zamzam, North Darfur’s largest IDP camp, only to be told that they had to move again to a new site identified for thousands of other new arrivals.

In Darfur -- an area equivalent to the size of France where decades of conflict has undercut the wellbeing of children -- stories like Amira’s are all too common.

In her strange new surroundings, Amira says she felt embarrassed to defecate in the open.

“This is what we girls all use now,” she says. The temporary pit latrine she points to was constructed by community members with support from the Government of Sudan’s Water and Environmental Sanitation (WES) project and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It is one of over 1,500 pit latrines constructed in Zamzam over the last two months.  

“Disease outbreak is what you fear most when you have this kind of mass influx of people,” says Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Sudan Representative, adding: “Which is why providing adequate safe water and sanitation facilities tops our list of emergency response.”

Providing safe water supply and sanitation facilities to places like Zamzam is all the more challenging because the underground water – with its high fluoride and nitrate concentration -- is largely unfit for consumption.

“In situations like this it’s vital that we adapt and innovate while negotiating with various government and non-government actors in order to overcome the many challenges,” says Kastberg.

Those efforts have paid off. The provision of water and sanitation along with health and hygiene promotion campaigns have helped minimize disease outbreaks, officials say. In particular, there has been no outbreak of cholera since 2007.

At the same time, there are now improved prospects that Sudan will meet its Millennium Development Goal targets in terms of water accessibility by 2015. In North Darfur State, 58 per cent of the population is using improved sources of drinking water, a 10 point increase from 2006, while improved sanitation facilities are reaching nearly all IDP camps. Challenges, however, remain as more than a third of the population using improved water must travel long distances in order to reach it.

To meet some of these concerns, UN agencies and the Government are organizing a major donor conference in June on the theme of “Water for Sustainable Peace in Darfur”. The conference will appeal for USD1.4 billion to address climate change, sustainability, water resources management and water supply issues in Darfur.

If that target is achieved, it will go a long way towards helping address the needs of Amira, and thousands of children like her.

For more information please contact Sampath Kumar at



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