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From the archives of UNHCR: From Emergency to Development a Story of Water. | by UNHCR
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From the archives of UNHCR: From Emergency to Development a Story of Water.

As a result of the 1978 war between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ogaden, hundreds of thousands of refugees sought asylum in Somalia where they found shelter in 30 refugee camps, their fate entirely depending on the help of Somali government and the international community. Here newly arrived refugees at the Tug Wajale transit camp awaiting assignment to another camp.

UNHCR/ W. Gartung/ 1981


From Emergency to Development a Story of Water.


There is not very much fighting going on in Africa at the moment, or rather, there is no declared war as such. Nevertheless, nearly five million refugees are in camps in Africa awaiting an outcome – any sort of outcome. A happy one, as in the case of Zimbabwe, where hundreds of thousands of former refugees have gone home, ready to start their lives again in their newly independent country. Or, then, the next possible outcome.


For the moment, solutions are not ready at hand, except provisional ones which run the risk of sometimes becoming permanent. So what is to be done?


Somalia, end of 1980.

They call it the Swiss camp. There is a very active and devoted Swiss team here, but the refugees who have built their own huts come from the Ogaden. These huts are made of wood and thorn bushes which, a short time ago, covered a good part of the sand – sand which would make children in Scandinavia very happy.


Edward B., who is responsible to UNHCR for the fate of more than 300,000 refugees in this Gedo region, tells us, in a strong German accent, “The massacre of these thorn bushes must stop, otherwise the dessert will invade everything…”.


Of course, he meant desert. But, in fact, that would amount to a bitter dessert indeed. The end of everything.


What must be done to prevent this?


To prevent these people, most of whom are women and children, from just sitting in front of their huts, doing nothing, waiting for the trucks to arrive from Mogadishu with the meagre food rations and medicines?


First of all, it is obvious that everything must be done to keep these human beings alive. It is as simple as that.


And this is being done. The rations are not always sufficient, medicines are lacking from time to time, but one manages. The children, their smiles showing all their extraordinarily beautiful white teeth, run to us, make signs with their hands and play, as children do all over the world, minus calories and vitamins.


Is there hope?




There is, for example, the story of water.

The Juba River never dries up, but it is very polluted. Drink a mouthful and you will soon find out. And so, teams of young, enthusiastic experts have come here from England, from West Germany, from many other places, equipped with attractive little round swimming pools, just as one buys in Geneva, or Miami, for the children to bathe in at home in their own gardens. The river water is pumped into these basins, it is then purified, and come out, several metres further on, clean.


As clean as water.


At least, 80 per cent clean.


Some weeks after these water purification plants had been installed, almost 50% of all the children in the camps of Gedo had stopped complaining of stomach ache and various gastric complaints.

This work must continue, because the day when the volunteers from Oxfam, from the German Caritas organisation, from the French “Medicines sans Frontières” leave, the little children must not go back to the river and get sick again.


How is this to be done?

UNHCR, together with UNICEF, has decided to spend several million dollars on getting wells dug and water pumps installed everywhere in the camps.


This may be described as a permanent solution for a problem which is ironically provisional. But even if we may hope that these 800, 000 refugees in Somalia, and the millions of others in Africa and elsewhere will cease to be refugees one day, the water will continue to be of use, for drinking, and for irrigation of the yellowy, sandy soil which changes colour as soon as it is watered. In a few days, the desolation takes on an aspect of hope. In the little gardens of a camp in the region of Gedo, in the middle of land as dry as gunpowder, I saw cucumber growing. In another camp, melons were yellowing, almost visibly.


Why not corn and wheat, which would help not only these refugees but also the poor peasants, for whom Gedo has always been home, to become self-sufficient.


And then, there are the cattle, five or six per inhabitant. Their number could also be increased if there was enough water, better distributed throughout the country. Irrigation is essential. And when that kind of work really starts, the time will come for an organisation such as UNHCR to give way too the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP.


Seen from a global aspect, this is but a little story, pages of which are now being written in Somalia and elsewhere. In Tanzania, more than 60,000 refugees have been well integrated into the rural area of Ulyankula. Elsewhere, tens of thousands of refugees have done the same in Sudan, Mozambique, Zaire, Zambia, and in other countries of this unfortunate continent, full of promises and pride.


It is urgent not to wait for political solutions which are slow in coming about. The children of the “Swiss camp” will never forgive us if we do not help them become useful adults of tomorrow.


Source: UNHCR – Refugee magazine No. 1 – January/ February 1981.


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