by Robert Fox
Flying low over Ethiopia, I am reminded how beautiful a country it is: the rich green of the highlands, the dramatic peaks and ravines of the Rift Valley, the vast expanse of the southern grazing lands. Then: stark evidence of the drought that has gripped much of East Africa, as the earth grows ever more parched.
Ironically our flight from Addis was delayed two hours by teeming rains. In the highlands the rivers, lakes and streams are brimming. Indeed, many fields are flooded. But as we fly south over the Borana region, the riverbeds are dry, the ponds empty.
And as we land in Dolo Ado, a village in the far south, not far from the Somali border, we enter a desolate land of swirling red dust and dry winds that sting your eyes and leave your throat dry.
In recent months, the population of this barren land has tripled from 40,000 to 120,000 and continues to swell daily. For as isolated and forgotten as this region is, it offers relief from the famine and conflict that grips an ever larger part of Somalia – all the more ironic because those raised in this community are themselves suffering hunger and thirst.
From this remote spot we travel even further off and on a gravel road to a camp set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Oxfam is providing water, sanitation and public health promotion in this camp, which has 7,000 residents the day I visit and is set to grow by 1,000 a day.
Women and Children
Most are women and children. In fact, I’m told 80 per cent are under 18 years of age. They’ve walked days – in many cases weeks – to get here and there’s not a spare inch of fat amongst them. Many have lost family members – children and parents – along the way. Most arrived with only the clothes on their backs. Too many suffered or witnessed violence. Yet despite the trauma, the dominant mood is relief rather than distress.
One woman tells me she walked nine days with her husband and four children to find shelter at the camp. She’s pleased with her tent and the water stand near her new home. She’s been elected a member of the water committee, already active within a few days of arriving, representing the residents and helping build and maintain the latrines.
Oxfam has erected one 10,000 litre water tank in the camp with two more slated for completion within days. Water stands have been set up – clusters of 16 taps that provide potable water and serve as a community hub – and more were under construction. Water is currently trucked into the camp – 5 or 6 tankers a day, at considerable expense. But the 3 kilometers of piping that will allow us to pump water from a nearby river is being trucked to the camp this week.
Temporary pit latrines have been dug and more sturdy ones will be erected in the coming days — four latrines and two shower cabins for each cluster of 16 households, each with its own water committee made up of two women and one man selected by and from the families served. As always, Oxfam combines its water and sanitation efforts with a strong emphasis on hygiene and public health promotion, recognizing the integral link among them and the high risk of water-borne disease.
Public health promotion
Public health promoters are already working to raise awareness and promote healthy habits. For people accustomed to living a semi-nomadic life, dispersed over vast areas, defecating in the open air is the norm. But brought suddenly together in an instant town of tens of thousands, it would be deadly if they were to continue this practice. The contagion carried by contaminated water and flies could turn a crisis into a catastrophe.
Knowing the power of play, Oxfam targets the children to help get out the message. At an impromptu performance, one young boy sings a beautiful song in praise of clean water, clean hands and clean toilets. Next is a skit in which one youth scolds a friend who is found squatting in a field, encouraging him to use the latrines for his own sake and that of the community. Given they have been living in the camp only a few days, the quality of the performance – and the conviction of the messengers – is hugely encouraging.
In the coming days, the health promoters will be identifying natural leaders in the community, hiring them to help spread the message – whether it’s to wash hands after using the latrines or reminding donkey owners to take their animals to the river, rather than the water stands, for a drink.
The conditions in the camp are stark. It’s far from the nearest town which will make it much harder for the refugees to buy or trade or find work that would help them support their families. The winds blow the dust about which gives rise to eye and throat infections. And the food they’ve been given is unfamiliar to them so they need to learn how to cook it.
Despite the hardship, the new residents are happy to have the trek and the reception centre behind them and they thank the Ethiopian government and people for offering them refuge.
Robert Fox is Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.
Related August 2011 blogs by Robert Fox:
- For refugees, a fresh start in Dadaab
- “When the camels start dying, you know that it’s desperate”
- Somali refugees thank donors, Oxfam