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Chad: a lifeline of clean water

19-03-2007 Feature

Insecurity in eastern Chad has forced almost 120,000 people to flee their homes. This has resulted in massive pressure on water resources in a famously arid part of the world. ICRC has been working to provide clean drinking water for those displaced by the conflict.


    “Water is the life of man,” declares Mahmoud Mahamat Marouf, who is village chief of a tiny, far-flung community in eastern Chad called Goz Bagar. “If there is no water, there are problems. How can there be life without water?”

Water is a precious commodity anywhere in the world, but especially in Chad’s eastern provinces, where the barren landscape is continually battered by swirling sandstorms and 45 degree heat.

As villagers here point out, finding water was already a major daily preoccupation. But when a large influx of displaced villagers suddenly arrived in December 2006, resources were stretched to breaking point.

“When the displaced came we welcomed them - after all they are like our family,” explains Mahmoud. “But there have been many problems. If I started telling you all our problems, it would take more than a day!”

Mahmoud has good reason to feel worried.

The region where he lives, Bardé, is normally home to about 7,500 villagers. The arrival of almost 12,000 displaced Chadians means the population here has almost tripled in a few short weeks.

The displaced, who fled inter-ethnic violence, have massively increased demand on a key resource – water - which was already in short supply.

ICRC has begun building wells in Bardé and other regions in eastern Chad affected by influxes of displaced villagers. More than 20 wells were built in 2006, and the ICRC hopes to build at least another 20 in 2007.

Those using the new wells say they make the world of difference.

“You can’t compare them to our traditional wells,” says Ibrahim Mahamat Abdallah as he pulls water from a new ICRC well in the village of Arkoum. “At home I have to walk 90 minutes to get water. I can waste a whole day just to fill two canisters, and even then the water is brown. "

“But this water here is very good. It’s clean and clear and there’s lots of it.”

Until the ICRC stepped in, local villagers had been using so-called ‘traditional’ wells to find water.

This involves digging holes in wadis, or dried-out riverbeds, and then lining them with twigs and leaves.

Not only it is back-breaking work, it’s also a major health risk. Water from these wells is usually a murky brown colour, contaminated not only by sand and dirt but animal faeces too.

“This is the traditional way to find water, and people have been doing this for hundreds of years,” says Bernard Salzmann, ICRC water co-ordinator.

“Wells like these need re-building every so often, but more importantly the water is polluted,” he adds. “It’s common for people to get diarrhoea, cholera and other water-borne diseases.”

Lack of water has a major impact on people’s lives, not only in terms of practicalities like sanitation, but – as with any scarce resource – conflict is never far behind.

“Look at my clothes,” implores villager Younous Issak, whose lives in an area where five villages must share one well. “I have nothing clean to wear. I wash my clothes just once a week.

“Also, because there is hardly any water in the well, there is fighting. Some women are so worried by the fighting they go to fetch their water at night. They are scared.”

So far the ICRC has built three brand-new wells in the region of Bardé, and is ‘rehabilitating’, or cleaning, a fourth. The wells, which cost up to US$3,000 each, take four to six weeks to build.

Water experts use a combination of local knowledge and scientific techniques to decide where to sink a well. The terrain may appear dry as a bone to the untrained eye, but even here in Chad the water table often wields a surprising amount of liquid.

The ICRC always employs local villagers to help dig the wells as participation creates a feeling of ownership and responsibility for the new facility.

One of the unexpected benefits of the well-building project has been a small boom in agriculture. Next to the new ICRC well in Arkoum, for example, villagers have begun growing carrots, onions and garlic.

Locals quickly realised they could harness this new-found water supply and use it to their advantage. It makes for an unusual sight to see green buds pushing their way through the soil out here in the desert.

The aim of this work is not only to alleviate the burden on host communities, but also to stop local villagers from developing a sense of resentment as they see their displaced neighbours benefit from outside help.

“We think water is a crucial issue and that’s one of the main values of ICRC’s work here,” explains Bob Ghosn, ICRC delegate for the local area. “Water is key - it’s instrumental to life in this region and it’s a daily struggle to get water. Our projects are definitely helping the most vulnerable groups and victims of the conflict to access water, which is exactly what they need to alleviate their suffering.”

Providing clean drinking water is just one part of what ICRC does in eastern Chad.

In the region of Bardé for example, a brand-new ICRC-built health centre is due to open in April. It will be run by nurses from Chad’s health ministry, although the ICRC is making an initial outlay of medicines and equipment to help get the centre up and running.

Just like the new wells being built, the clinic will serve both locals and the displaced, with the aim of reducing pressure an already-stretched health system.

The ICRC has also distributed non-food items to displaced Chadians; a vital service seeing as many people fled their homes in such a hurry there was no time to grab belongings.

“All our clothes and possessions were stolen during cross border incursions, but the ICRC came to bring us blankets, water canisters and tents,” says Abdulai Mahamat Yacoub, who represents the 12,000 displaced Chadians living in Bardé.

“This has really helped our lives – thank God for the ICRC.”