First place winner, One World Media Coronavirus Reporting Award

  1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. East Africa
  4. Sudan

Refugees languish in makeshift tents waiting for new camp

[Chad] Water is hard to come by in the arid east of landlocked Chad.
Water is hard to come by in the east of landlocked Chad. The land is arid, the climate harsh, and there is little vegetation (IRIN)

On the scorching slopes of the semi-desert in eastern Chad, 14,000 Darfur refugees are crossing their fingers and praying that an Australian in a cowboy hat can find water.

Problems with water supplies have already forced the UN refugee agency UNHCR to twice delay moving refugees from the heavily-congested Bredjing camp to a new one down the road at Treguine.

And now all eyes are on Gabriel Salas, a technical advisor to UNHCR, and his team of international and Chadian experts.

“It’s more difficult to find water in Chad than in the Kalahari desert,” he told IRIN, bumping along the unpaved road to Treguine.

At the moment, the area looks relatively lush with a carpet of green grass, ripening corn and mango trees rustling in the breeze. But then, this part of eastern Chad has just enjoyed the bulk of its rainy season.

Similarly, wells that have been dug for the new camp at Treguine are in fairly good shape given the recent rains. But this bounty is not expected to last forever.

“In about three or four months the water table drops three or four metres and leaves you high and dry. We could deepen the wells but it’s not going to provide a reliable water supply,” Salas explained.

The hydrologist is critical of how decisions to site the camp.

“They shouldn’t just start the construction of camps without assuring water first... To use the analogy of building a house, you need the foundations before tackling the walls and roofs,” he said.

“You can’t just build a camp anywhere. You have to work with what nature offers you.”

Seven litres of water a second

His team are looking at two options to get a long-term sustainable water supply for the Treguine camp, which he estimates will need seven litres of water every second.

The first option involves studying the seasonal rivers, known as wadis. There may be a very thick layer of sediment underneath the riverbed with pockets of water trapped deep within, which could be tapped even during the dry season.

The water team is carrying out electrical soundings to see how far the sediment goes down before giving way to granite and will then judge whether there is enough water hidden inside.

If the sediment route proves a dead-end, then the only other hope is finding fractures in the hard granite rock.

20049276.jpg

There has been a meningitis outbreak in Chad's overcrowded refugee camps ...
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Bredjing refugee camp in eastern Chad is already bursting at the seams with people who have fled the fighting in Darfur. September 2004. ...
http://www.irinnews.org
Monday, September 27, 2004
Vaccination completed following meningitis outbreak in refugee camps
[Chad] Bredjing refugee camp in eastern Chad is already bursting at the seams with people who have fled the fighting in Darfur. September 2004. ...
Bredjing is already bursting at the seams with people who have fled the fighting in Darfur

A few kilometers down the road, the excess refugee population at Bredjing hold their breath.

They fled the western Sudanese region of Darfur earlier this year, having seen their villages go up in flames and their friends and family slaughtered by the Janjawid, a pro-Khartoum militia.

Even after making it across the border into Chad, the Darfuris still didn’t feel safe and wouldn’t wait for the UN convoys to take them to official camps.

Instead, they took matters into their own hands, trudged more than 50 km across barren and inhospitable terrain and formed an impromptu settlement on the fringes of the already-overcrowded Bredjing camp.

Bredjing, designed to accommodate 20,000 refugees at most, is today home to twice that number. It takes a good 15 minutes to drive from one end of the camp to the other.

First you pass row after row of standard issue brown UNHCR tents - which house the registered refugees -- and then you come to the more makeshift homes of plastic sheeting and acacia branches where the so-called spontaneous refugees eke out the days.

Philippe Douryang, who manages the camp for charity CARE, estimates there are 31,000 official refugees and 14,000 spontaneous refugees.

“The biggest problem is moving those spontaneous refugees into a new camp at Treguine. It was pencilled in twice - once on 15 August and once on 15 September. I have no idea when it will be now,” he told IRIN.

Mothers queue for food

For refugees like Mariam Haroon Adam that day cannot come quickly enough.

“I haven’t been able to find anything here,” Mariam sighed as she breast-fed her nine-month-old daughter Gissma. “I had to rummage in the bush and collect firewood to sell. Then I managed to buy a bit of rice from the market… and some sacks to build a shelter.”

200492711.jpg

Survival is a constant struggle for mothers and children in eastern Chad
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Mariam, a refugee from Darfur, waits in the blistering heat with daughter Gissma to get her first food rations in three months. Bredjing camp, eastern Chad, September 2004. ...
http://www.irinnews.org
Monday, September 27, 2004
Some 80,000 children at risk in lawless east
[Chad] Mariam, a refugee from Darfur, waits in the blistering heat with daughter Gissma to get her first food rations in three months. Bredjing camp, eastern Chad, September 2004. ...
Mariam waits in the blistering heat with daughter Gissma to get her first food rations in three months

On those days when there was nothing to eat, her breast milk dried to a trickle. But on Thursday those memories were banished - at least temporarily.

She was all smiles as she huddled as close as possible to a roped-off area where sacks of sorghum, rice and sugar and bottles of oil sat, waiting to be distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP).

Although the food agency has already made several distributions to the spontaneous refugees, some like Mariam were about to get their very first rations since arriving three months ago.

Behind her, hundreds of other refugees -- men in their elegant white robes and turbans, and women wrapped in blindingly colourful fabrics -- milled about, the air buzzing with excited voices planning meals.

Aid workers at the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland, who conduct about 1,600 consultations a week at their Bredjing centre, say malnutrition is higher among those in the makeshift part of the camp.

Half of the more than 300 children suffering from some form of malnutrition in Bredjing are spontaneous refugees, medical co-ordinator Kai Braker said.

“Their needs are not being properly covered,” he told IRIN.

200492710.jpg

Les signes de malnutrition sont particulièrement visibles chez les enfants
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Children in the spontaneous refugee section of the camp have been hardest hit by malnutrition. Bredjing camp for Darfur refugees, September 2004. ...
http://www.irinnews.org
Monday, September 27, 2004
La malnutrition aiguë augmente dans les camps de réfugiés
[Chad] Children in the spontaneous refugee section of the camp have been hardest hit by malnutrition. Bredjing camp for Darfur refugees, September 2004. ...
Children in the spontaneous refugee section of the camp have been hardest hit by malnutrition

Behind him severely malnourished children, who in Europe would be being treated in some sort of intensive care unit, whined in protest as their mothers tried to feed them with enriched milk on the floor of a tent.

Resources under strain

As well as experiencing health problems themselves, the extra hoards of spontaneous refugees are also pushing Bredjing’s water and sanitation facilities for the official refugee population towards breaking point.

“People should be getting 15 litres water per person per day but we can only provide 10 litres,” Bertrand Bazel, a UNHCR worker at the camp, explained.

“The water level is falling and it’s very early for it to fall. And when the dry season comes and temperatures rise, people want more water so it needs sorting out quickly,” he said. “If we could move the spontaneous refugees, then in theory the water supply should stabilise.”

“Really this situation can only go on for another two weeks,” he added with a shake of the head.

Latrines are also in short supply. Camp manager Douryang estimates at least 70 people are having to share one latrine, when really it ought to be 20 at most.

“We’ve observed some people using water from the wadi because there are not enough supplies to go round, and we’ve also seen people defecating in the fields,” he said.

Polluted drinking water and poor sanitation often provide a fertile breeding ground for disease, which in an overcrowded camp would cause even more headaches.

Moves afoot?

UNHCR workers in the field say next week some of the spontaneous refugees on the outskirts of Bredjing will start moving to the nearby camp at Farchana, which has been extended to accommodate another 6,000 people.

But the jury is out on if and when Treguine will finally open its doors.

“We won’t move a single person there until we find sustainable and stable sources of water,” said Claire Bourgeois, the woman in charge at UNHCR’s east Chad headquarters in Abeche.

“There’s no point relying on sources of water that will break down later. And we need to find not one sustainable source but two or three,” she added.

In case the most pessimistic scenario becomes a reality and water proves elusive, UNHCR planners are in the process of scouring the region for new sites and are calculating whether some of the other established camps could be enlarged.

Water expert Salas says if the refugees’ prayers are answered and his team does find a sustainable long-term water supply, it would take a couple of months to harness it and put in pipes. But the refugees could probably take up residence while the work is being done.

“If all goes well we could start moving them in about two or three weeks and have them rely on the shallow wells in the meantime,” he said. “So by the middle of October. If we’re lucky.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Join