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West Timor: Sanitation boosts health in camps

19-11-1999 News Release 99/46

" The sanitation here is not great, " says Dr Ilham Chaidin as he stands outside the tent serving as the Red Cross health-care post in the Haliulun camp for displaced people near Atambua. The camp houses over 1,000 people, their homes constructed of leaves and bamboo for the walls, while the roofs consist of orange or blue plastic sheeting. " But there is little point " , Dr Chaidin goes on, " in lecturing people about washing their hands and keeping their children clean when in any case there is not enough water to go around. "

Here and there behind the makeshift shelters are small cubicles: three walls of plastic sheeting, cardboard or leaves. These are the latrines dug by the camp residents. Inside there is usually no more than a hole in the ground, one and two metres deep. Up to 10 families use a single latrine.

Not far from Dr Chaidin's tent is a large blue portable tank: the camp's water supply. It can hold 4,000 litres, but now the lid is propped against the wall of a nearby house, with a bucket abandoned on the ground nearby. Both items make clear that there will be no water until the next daily visit by the tanker truck. ICRC engineers calculate the camp's daily water requirement at about 24,000 litres.

" After food and shelter, drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities are the most important problems, " says Mr Iyang Sukandar of the Indonesian Red Cross, adding that there are some 60 camps in the area, many of them in worse condition than Haliulun.

" Sanitation facilities mu st be properly constructed to prevent the spread of disease, " explains Muziel Alzwar, the engineer in charge of the project. " In some of the camps the latrines are too close to wells; in most cases the latrines are not deep enough. " At Haliulun camp the Red Cross recruited volunteers from among the younger men to dig the latrines. " It's a boost for their self-esteem to be able to do something like this, rather than just sit around the camp all day. "