Sudan / East Africa: solar-powered drinking water
Clean drinking water is a scarce resource in East Africa. Jean Vergain, regional water specialist based in Nairobi, Kenya, explains how the ICRC provides water in remote conflict-prone areas. He highlights one big project currently under way in Southern Sudan.
What are the challenges you face when providing water for people affected by armed conflict or violence?
There are two main challenges regarding water in East Africa. The first is that of maintaining or developing the water supply system. In many countries, the issue is not a lack of water, but the lack of a functioning system for distributing it. This is the case in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or in big urban centres such as the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
In the eastern DRC, years of armed conflict have made it impossible to carry out urgently needed maintenance work. As a result, people often drink river water, which brings the risk of dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Another problem is that many people are forced to move not once, but several times. Even if an existing water source is sufficient for one village or a small town, the residents often have to share it with thousands of people displaced by fighting. And then one source is not enough.
The second main challenge is the rainfall situation in semi-arid areas, such as parts of Somalia, Sudan and Kenya. In some cases there has simply been too little rain. In other instances there is enough rain overall, but it falls too irregularly. The result of both scenarios is that the water table is very low, so you need to dig deeper and deeper to reach the water.
If an area is affected both by prolonged armed conflict or violence and a shortage of rain, the population will really struggle to obtain drinking water safely and easily. Drought is nothing new in this region, and people there have ways of dealing with it. What is new is the extreme nature of the current droughts, in combination with conflict and other violence, which has left these traditional "coping mechanisms" unable to compensate.
In practical terms, how do you go about supplying clean water to those who need it most?
In emergency situations, such as when a large number of people have been displaced by fighting, the ICRC distributes drinking water by road and/or applies quick fixes, such as installing hand pumps at wells. But even at that stage we will be thinking about ensuring a sustainable water supply, because displaced people generally stay in their host areas for some time. And of course it's not just the quantity of water that counts, but the quality, because it's important to avoid water-borne diseases. This means that in addition to repairing existing infrastructure we improve it, providing long-term benefit. In the DRC, for instance, we have expanded existing systems in urban areas, while in Kenya and Somalia we are working in remote rural areas.
We always work closely with local partners, such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society. In addition, we work with government water authorities or, in contexts such as Somalia, with elders and community leaders. These partnerships are essential to the sustainability of our projects.
One project that will have a significant impact is currently under way in Akobo, Southern Sudan. Can you tell us more about it?
The solar-powered water supply project in Akobo is indeed very important. Akobo is situated in the north-east of Jonglei State in Southern Sudan, close to the border with Ethiopia.
Thousands fled to the area in 2009 following inter-community clashes. Over 55,000 people – almost 20,000 of them displaced persons – found themselves without enough water. The existing water points in Akobo are completely unable to cope. People have been surviving on less than two litres of safe drinking water a day, with the only sources of water being existing hand pumps or the Pibor River.
Access to Akobo is difficult, as the area suffers heavy downpours during the rainy season and there are few roads. The only way for ICRC staff to get there is by plane or by boat, and we have to bring heavy supplies in along the River Nile, using barges. Very few humanitarian organizations are operating in Akobo, despite the tribal clashes that have regularly displaced people in the area.
The ICRC therefore decided to build a series of water yards, to assist both displaced persons and the host community in the town of Akobo. At these locations, a powerful pump extracts water from tens of metres below the ground and transfers it to elevated tanks. Under the effect of gravity, the water then flows from the tanks through pipes to public water distribution points in town. Those pumps need electricity, and the supporting structures for a total of 420 solar panels are now in place, with the components of the system currently en route from Germany to Akobo. We expect the project to be completed in the first quarter of 2011.
Once it's fully functional, the Akobo project will increase the supply of safe drinking water from less than two litres to 10 litres per day per person. The project will provide water to a school, a hospital and several new administrative buildings, together with a number of other distribution points used by both people and livestock.
We decided to use solar energy to power the pumps because Akobo is a very remote area and the system needs to run with no major intervention or repairs in the near future. The project includes training the water authorities in the use of the solar pumping system, and we're conducting this training in cooperation with the authorities in Juba.
The ICRC has had positive experiences with solar panels in its previous projects in Eritrea and we're looking into using the same technology in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.