In the past couple of weeks, another 30,000 refugees have fled the conflict in the Blue Nile region of Sudan and arrived in Upper Nile in South Sudan – adding to the tens of thousands of refugees who have already fled the fighting since late 2011. Oxfam is working in the Jamam refugee camp, which has faced critical water shortages due to the influx of people.
Pauline Ballaman, Oxfam’s emergency manager, answers some questions on the latest developments in the camp:
What is the current situation in Jamam?
Oxfam delivers water and sanitation all over the world and conditions here are about as difficult as it gets. There are currently 35,000 refugees almost entirely dependent on aid agencies, in one of the most remote and isolated parts of Africa, where there is simply not enough water to meet the growing needs.
To make matters even worse, another 30,000 new refugees have crossed the border into Upper Nile in the past two weeks, fleeing new fighting and bombing in Blue Nile. A further 20,000 are reportedly on their way. The region was struggling to cope even before this new influx of people. A new camp in Batil, about 60kms from Jamam, is being prepared for the new arrivals, and Oxfam is drilling for water in the new site.
The rains – which have just started – have made the situation even more critical. The annual rains cut off many roads in this region, which hampers the delivery of water and other vital aid. Conditions in the camp are the perfect storm for an outbreak of cholera or other water-borne diseases as the rains get heavier in the coming weeks.
Are refugees getting enough water, food and other aid?
Despite the best efforts of Oxfam and other agencies, people are not getting as much as they need. Water is by far the biggest challenge. Oxfam and other NGOs have had teams of engineers and drilling rigs trying to find more water, but there just isn’t enough available – and every new arrival increases the pressure on what scarce resources there are. Ideally we want to provide people with 15 litres of water a day – the international standard – but at the moment people only get about 6.7 litres a day. It’s not enough. Mothers in the camp have to choose between using water for cooking or bathing… it’s a choice nobody should have to make.
How real is the threat of cholera?
Illness is already common in the camp due in part to the lack of water – for example, 40 percent of patients treated in Jamam’s health clinic are reported to be suffering from diarrhoea. The risk that this will get worse now the rains have arrived is very high, especially in children and other vulnerable populations, because water sources often get contaminated during the floods.
The Oxfam team in Jamam is working to reduce the risk. We are chlorinating the water in the camp, constructing better sanitation facilities (505 latrines built so far), and carrying out health campaigns. Most of the refugees have fled from rural areas and are not used to living in crowded camp conditions, where diseases can easily spread, so our health workers show them ways to reduce that risk. We are also stockpiling water treatment equipment, chemicals and other aid in case an outbreak does occur.
Last month Oxfam warned that 23,000 refugees needed to be urgently relocated from Jamam. Has this happened?
No, not yet. It is crucial that people are moved to a location with a more reliable water source. If 23,000 of the refugees in Jamam are relocated, there would be enough water to provide the remaining 16,500 refugees with the recommended 15 litres of water per person per day.
Additional capacity in Doro (another camp in Upper Nile) was available, with an adequate supply of water, and about 3,000 people were moved. But just as the relocation operations were beginning, there was the new influx of almost 30,000 new refugees into Upper Nile. As a result, resources were diverted to deal with the needs of the new arrivals.
The rains will make it almost impossible to move large numbers of people, so the window to relocate the refugees is shrinking rapidly. Every effort must be made to continue to relocate them in the little time that remains.
Is there a solution to this crisis?
Aid is making a big difference for the refugees, and it’s vital that aid keeps coming as we enter the rainy season. It’s more crucial than ever. But aid alone is not enough. What the refugees really need is an end to the conflict and bombing in Blue Nile so that they can go home in safety. People want to go home, but they need security to do so.