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Sudan: new wells for old in West Darfur

18-07-2006 Feature

In remote Arab villages in West Darfur the ICRC is piloting a programme of hand-dug wells for nomads and agro-pastoralists, who are facing problems cleaning and maintaining traditional wells in the harsh, semi-arid terrain. Jessica Barry reports.


  © ICRC    
  Asha Abdalla (in green) has collected water in the wadi for 40 years.    
    The ICRC decided to launch the programme two months ago, following a needs assessment in the lowlands of the Jebel Marra. The project adds to a much wider ICRC operation that is providing water for some 1.5 million residents and displaced persons across Darfur, by rehabilitating pumps and water yards, digging wells and drilling boreholes. The ICRC's water programmes aim to provide assistance across all ethnic boundaries, wherever there are needs.
The government-administered town of Gorne, which lies in the Nertiti locality 40 kilometres from Zalingei, is a huddle of thatched dwellings set in thorn-protected compounds. Surrounding it lie the scattered villages, or damrats , of the nomadic Arab communities. It is here that the ICRC's well digging programme is being implemented, spearheaded by a water engineer from Afghanistan and a skilled local craftsman.
Nomads dig their traditional wells by hand in the beds of seasonal rivers, known as wadis . The well shafts – sometimes up to six metres deep -- are lined with tree branches to prevent them collapsing. Water is drawn up using cans or buckets attached to long, knotted ropes and poured into shallow drinking troughs for the animals. Jerry cans are used for carrying water home.

 Parched landscape  

Day after day around Gorne, women in brilliant dresses riding tiny grey donkeys, men on loping camels, dusty sheep and thin cows can be seen making their way across the parched landscape towards the water holes.

During the rainy season from late June to October, the wadis turn into deep, powerful torrents, submerging the wells and flooding the land. At this time, the nomads migrate to distant grazing areas, returning only when the animals are fat and the rains over. Family members who stay behind in the villages cultivate small plots of millet or sorghum in the saturated desert soil, and plant okra and tomato seeds in garden plots during the brief, bountiful period of rain. Once the rains are over and the river beds dry up again, the wells need substantial repair – a punishing task that goes on year after year.

The ICRC's Gorne programme aims to make this effort easier by using moulded concrete rings to line the well shafts, in place of the traditional branches. The concrete is easy to clean and maintain, and lasts for years. By using a submersible pump to suck out water from the bottom of the shaft during the digging phase, the well can be deepened substantially, creating a plentiful reservoir. Troughs for the animals are erected nearby, and fed by water channels.

One of the wadis where the Gorne programme is being implemented lies close to the village of Koy.

  © ICRC    
  Traditional wells are not protected and easily become polluted.    
    With the blessing of local leaders, the programme aims to involve the communities as much as possible in the work. Village men help with the digging, and collect sand and gravel for mixing the concrete. Other essential materials, such as cement, and iron bars for the supports, are purchased locally by the ICRC.

 Skilled craftsman  

The concrete rings for lining the wells are moulded by a local craftsman who did similar work for many years for the Jebel Marra project, a government-run agency. When the conflict started in Darfur, preventing access to many areas, the work was suspended. Today, as a key element of the team, he uses his skills to make the well linings for the ICRC's programme. As a member of the Fur tribe, his initial concerns in travelling to the villages has been allayed by the warm welcome he has received everywhere.

Asha Abdalla, a 45-year-old widow, is unconcerned about anything except getting water for herself and her five children. In her opinion, life will not change much either way once the new well is finished in the wadi at Koy, where she has been collecting water for the past 40 years. 

Bending over, amidst a flurry of mud-caked feet and scrambling hooves, to fill her jerry cans beside the animals'drinking trough, she remarks: " When the rains start the water will come up to here anyway, " and she looks up at the trees on the edge of the wadi with a resigned expression.

At another site nearby, a group of women are busy drawing water from an already completed well. Besides having a concrete lining, it is also surrounded by a low concrete wall, helping to keep animals at bay.

Asked what she thought of their new water source, one young woman who was returning from collecting fodder for her donkey replies: " It's wonderful. The water in our old well was always dirty – at least this one is clean. "