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Water: A Limited Resource for Kakuma Refugees

Vestine Umubyeyi's picture
Also available in: Français

Water is the source of life. Everyone depends on it, including the Kakuma refugees. In a desert environment, with no direct water source and reliable rainy season, the residents of Kakuma (locals and refugees) have great difficulty obtaining the water they need to survive.  The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), in conjunction with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), is assisting the people by trying to find solutions to create water points and establish proper hygiene and sanitation systems to safeguard the health of the people.

When a Solution is Found …..

The Lutheran World Federation arranged for the installation of underground equipment to extract groundwater. The advantage of this groundwater is that it is largely purified by natural means and can thus be channeled directly to standpipes in the refugee camp.

The camp is divided into several communities with each being supplied by two water points with two to four standpipes, depending on the number of beneficiaries.  Through the underground pumping system, each refugee is provided with potable water free of charge, a service that is not available to locals, that is, persons who are not refugees and thus live outside the camp.

There are many restrictions in the camp.  The amount of water provided daily to each person is rationed, water is available at standpipes only at specific times, and the lack of organization during distribution hours poses a real problem.

… New Problems Arise

The amount of water per person: Once water is available, each person near a standpipe goes to fetch water, the maximum being 10 liters per person.  In other words, a family of four may fill two 20-liter containers.  This is a very small amount considering water needs in Kakuma, where people need to drink at least 3 liters of water per day to maintain good health, owing to the hot climate.

A limited window of access: Water is distributed at standpipes to residents twice a day—first, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.  In other words, people can obtain their ration of water during a two-hour window each day.  People worry that they may not have enough time to get water and push and shove while forming the line.  Some try to cut in front of others and sometimes fights break out.  In addition, these hours are not convenient for working people, who are forced to pay someone else to get water for them so as to avoid being late for work.

Lack of organization: Not all communities have someone in charge of water distribution or someone responsible for security during distribution hours.   There are no established procedures or rules—the strong survive.  When distribution begins, the person at the head of the line begins to draw water, but when the “strongest” person arrives, everyone has to get out of the way.  This leads to fights in which the police must often intervene.  Another problem is that standpipes are located in unsanitary places where the water is contaminated by viruses and bacteria, which cause serious diseases.  While the authorities in charge of water access are aware of these problems, they have not, thus far, proposed better solutions for water distribution in the camp.

Poverty:  Though water should contribute to the wellbeing of the residents of Kakuma, poverty drives some people to sell it for profit.  For example, large quantities of water are used to make illicit alcoholic beverages.  Some women prefer to sell their ration to buy food for their children.  If they do not manage to cheat the system to obtain more water, they then have very little to drink and cook and none to clean their homes, which become unsanitary.  One person explains why she is dirty but is selling her water:   “We waste water if we bathe every day; we bathe once a week and use leftover laundry water to wash our feet.”

International Assistance

Refugees at the Kakuma camp are very grateful to all those who are providing assistance to them, especially the LWF.  However, since 1992, the year NGOs started to establish a presence in Kakuma, it seems that no additional effort has been made to develop current water systems, while the number of refugees increases daily.  These organizations need to establish additional access points and, more importantly, to ensure the proper functioning and maintenance of both new and old facilities.  In order to ensure that their objectives are met, that is, that everyone in Kakuma has access to water, the beneficiaries should be first asked whether they are satisfied or whether only a partial solution has been found.

UNESCO is currently organizing a series of consultation workshops on groundwater management.  The Africa region workshop will take place in Kenya May 24-26, 2012.  The objective will be to foster discussion on the region’s specific features, priorities, visions, and challenges.  It remains to be seen who will participate in these discussions…