Drilling in The Dust Changes Lives

16 02 2009

Villagers pump drinking water from a recently drilled borehole in the village of Mirindanyi. Pumping the handle of a water borehole up and down until the clear and cool liquid splashes into the plastic container. But it was not always this way. — AFP

It seems such a simple task: pumping the handle of a water borehole up and down until the clear and cool liquid splashes into the plastic container. And in the dry and dusty southern Sudanese village of Mirindanyi, they have been celebrating doing just that since their pump was installed last year. But it was not always this way. Beforehand, “it took two hours to the river to collect the water, then two hours back,” said Floris Fazir, pausing to heave a 20-litre container on her head.

“In the dry season, we got the water from a scraped well on the river bed, and that was dirty. We would get sick often. But water from the borehole is sweet to drink.” Southern Sudan, a region about the size of Spain and Portugal, is slowly recovering. Four million people were displaced from or within south Sudan during the 21 years of battle, according to assessments made after the 2005 peace deal which joined the southern rebel leadership with the northern government. Some 1.7 million people have since returned, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), but the lack of services remains dire.

Provision of drinking water “remains the top priority in all areas of returns,” the IOM said in a January report, warning that almost a quarter of villages surveyed relied on river water as their main source. But for communities such as Mirindanyi — a typical farming settlement some 190 kilometres west of Juba, capital of semi-autonomous southern Sudan — even river water vanishes during the dry season from December to March. Without a borehole, water was collected from shallow and dirty wells scraped into the river bed.

“Before, the school would close in the dry season because the children would be collecting water all day,” mother of eight Grace Justin said of the thatched classroom by the borehole. She and her family could carry back just 40 litres a day — for 10 people. Basic World Health Organization sanitation guidelines say people should have at least 20 litres a day each, and that the source should be less than a kilometre from the home. “We had only enough for cooking and drinking, not for washing,” Justin said.

Mirindanyi was a frontline zone during the war and villages in the area were abandoned for years. Development has always been a rarity in the region. Residents say the long and rocky track to the village has been untouched since the British colonial authorities ordered it built before Sudan’s independence in 1956. “We want to provide a good water supply close to every village,” said Helen Turkie, area head of the Southern Sudan Refugee and Rehabilitation Commission, the government authority supporting humanitarian development.

“Along with schools and health centres, these are what the people need.” But boreholes do not come cheap. “Each costs at least $13,000 — more if it is deep,” said Augustino Buya, local programme manager for the British aid agency Oxfam which funded the Mirindanyi borehole, one of 340 it has drilled in south Sudan since the war ended. Demand is also heavy, and huge areas remain without clean water supplies. “Each is designed to cater for 500 people, but many are being used by even 3,000,” Buya added.

The presence of boreholes has already had an impact on health, reducing sickness including water-borne diseases, officials say. In the local community health centre at Dosho, volunteer worker Godwin Jimma scanned down the neat ruled lines of the register. “There has been a decrease in diarrhoea since we stopped collecting the water from the river,” Jimma said. “Fewer children are dying now,” he added, pausing by the baby-weighing scale hanging in the simple tin-roofed building.

Maintenance is a major problem, however. The metal pumps are basic designs, and heavy use in tough conditions puts great strain on them. More than 40 per cent of boreholes in villages assessed by the IOM were not working. In nearby Wanpi, women walked wearily through the dry grass. Their pump was broken, dozens of people had descended on the village for a celebration, and now they faced hours of back-breaking work fetching water.

“I check everything is working fine and do regular maintenance, but I can’t do complicated repairs,” said Bullen Tio, trained as a “water caretaker” by Oxfam. This time an engineer must be called out to fix the broken Wanpi pump. Water carrying is women’s work, and while the borehole in Mirindanyi has cut down the hours needed for that, there are always other tough tasks they must do such as tending the crops, washing, gathering firewood and cooking.

“It has helped them,” said elder Supana Juruba, lay priest of the village’s thatched-hut church, nodding towards one woman pumping water. “Now there is more time for them to do other work.” The boreholes are changing lives. “Carrying water was such hard work. Now I get to lie in the morning in bed — more time with my husband,” said grandmother Monica Elizai with a big wink and a toothless laugh.

By Peter Martell in Sudan – AFP




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