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Uganda: water and sanitation project restores hope in IDP camps

28-09-2007 Feature

With a population of 46,000, Pabbo is the largest internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in the Gulu district, filled with rural folk who fled the countryside in the early 1990s due to armed conflict. Ugandan journalist Denis Ocwich reports on an ICRC water and sanitation project that has given rise to new hope by improving health in the camps.

  ©ICRC/W. Akwat    
  Pabbo camp, Gulu Amuru district. Paul Oketta, team leader of Community Owned Resource Persons (CORPs) being interviewed by journalist Denis Ocwich (left).    
  ©ICRC/W. Akwat    
  New latrines in Pabbo camp built with the support of the ICRC.    
  ©ICRC/W. Akwat    
  Gulu district. Christine Akongo sits with her son in her neatly swept compound at Pawel camp. The ICRC-facilitated CORPs encourage residents to keep the camp environment clean and neat.    
  ©ICRC/W. Akwat    
  Pawel camp CORPs listen to an ICRC water and habitat delegate during their weekly hygiene promotion meeting.    

  See also Promoting community health in Gulu   

As an outsider ambling amidst myriads of compact grass-thatched huts, one can only imagine the lives people live in this displaced people's camp north of Uganda. With over 46,000 desperate souls crammed into the small area, social amenities are bound to sag. Nevertheless, life must go on.

Located 25 miles from Gulu town, Pabbo is the largest camp for internally displaced people, mostly peasants, who have since the early 1990s fled the countryside because of the Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in the region.

Until two years ago, this camp was prone to recurrent cholera outbreaks that claimed a number of lives. This was attributed mainly to lack of pit latrines, filthy environs, and poor and insufficient water sources.

 Filth now a thing of the past  

“The sanitation and hygiene was horrible. The compound used to be littered with rubbish and children’s faeces,” said Paul Oketta, the team leader of 50 Community Owned Resource Persons (CORPs), whose mandate includes mobilizing and educating residents on community hygiene. The ICRC trained the group, composed of male and female volunteers, following deteriorating conditions in the camps last year.

Besides Pabbo, CORPs have also been constituted in six other displaced people's camps in Gulu and Amuru districts. These are Pawel, Lugore, Palaro, Tegot, Bibia and Lulim camps. The level of cleanliness in all these camps has since risen. The air smells better than in the past, the compounds swept of sleaze, and the number (and quality) of pit latrines has significantly gone up.

Although in some cases up to 20 people still share a single toilet, this is a better ratio compared to the past when up to 100 people could be queuing for one toilet.

“It was a terrible thing! We would dig up a makeshift latrine but after one month it would be full; the population was overwhelming,” narrated Alfred Latigo, a 47-year-old man who has lived in Pabbo for the last 10 years.

A swarm of excited and curious children was running after us while we ate roast maize on our way to the site where stands of latrines were being erected near the army barracks in Pabbo. Some of the toilets had just been roofed, others were at wall level, or the pits were still being dug. More satisfying was that the children seem to have also embraced the need to keep the camp clean. It was a marvel to watch as they dutifully carried away a puppy knocked dead by a motorist to dump it in one of the latrines.

 New latrines and cleaner camp  

In the past, most latrines were rickety and made of grass or polythene materials, but now they are being constructed using blocks, reinforced concrete slabs and iron sheets, making them more durable and easier to maintain. Since last year, latrine coverage in the camps has tremendously improved – thanks to a project on water, habitat, and sanitation that the ICRC is implementing. 

The project involves construction of latrines, keeping the homesteads and camp surroundings clean by, among others, trimming the bushes and sweeping the compounds. Other activities include drilling or repair of boreholes, and provision of piped clean water for drinking and other domestic use.

In each of the camps benefiting from the ICRC water and sanitation project, the CORPs meet every week with ICRC and Uganda Red Cross Society staff to assess levels of sanitation or approve new toilets to be constructed.

“The team comes here every Wednesday, and we have to ensure our homes and compounds are clean,” Christine Akongo, a mother of five said as she pointed to the swept compound in Pawel.

Since last year, over 2,600 pit latrines have been constructed under the ICRC water and sanitation project. For every two or three-stance latrine, the ICRC provides timber, reinforced   concrete slabs, tools for pit digging, iron sheets and other roofing materials. “The beneficiaries (displaced people) have to make the blocks, dig the pits, and provide any required labour for the construction,” said Maung Maung Thu-Rein, the water and sanitation delegate from the ICRC's sub-delegation in Gulu.

Youth volunteers within the camps help the sick, the physically handicapped and the elderly to construct their latrines.

“At the beginning of this year, the Red Cross gave me slabs and timber to put up a new latrine. My grandson is now helping me to put it up,” said Anjulina Laker, a widow in her 60s, whose ‘bed-sitting room’ in Zone C-2 of Pabbo camp is a shack made of polythene materials.

Following the water and sanitation initiative, cases of cholera, diarrhoea, and other hygiene-related diseases have dropped by 50 per cent. More iron-roofed and block-walled toilets are increasingly replacing makeshift grass-thatched ones.

“The impact of Wathab is quick and huge, and yet the implementation does not require a big budget,” said Christine Cipolla, head of the ICRC Gulu sub-delegation. The volunteering CORPs are motivated by a “token of appreciation” of UGS 10,000 (about USD 6) per week.

The local language (Acholi) message inscribed on the ICRC-donated grey t-shirts donned by the CORPs during a meeting in Pawel sums it up: “ Kacel Watwero Medo Rwom me Lengo i Gang ”, which means: ‘Together, we can improve the standard of hygiene and sanitation at home.'