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Prossie Nakawuka/IWMI

From emergency to stability: sustainably developing water resources for refugees in Uganda

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

June 20th is World Refugee Day. As populations are forced to migrate across borders, we look at how effective water management can help improve the uncertain lives and futures of refugee and host communities.

It has been almost two years since 19 year old Viola left South Sudan and arrived in a refugee settlement in Uganda. When she arrived, she was given two jerry cans, which she has used to fetch water for bricklaying for her shelter, drinking, cooking, washing clothes, bathing and for the latrine.

Over a million refugees have fled conflict in South Sudan, entering northern Uganda over the past two years. These refugees now live in refugee settlements, the inhabitants of which are more than 80% women and children.

Last year, we visited some of these refugee settlements in the West Nile sub-region of Northern Uganda to assess the water resources management situation on behalf of GIZ and DFID. When we met Viola, there were major complaints in her part of the settlement about the challenges associated with the water supply. This year we returned and, although the number of refugees has increased, the story is not all bleak.

The situation early last year was complex, considering the high volume of people coming into the country who were being settled in areas known to be water scarce. Water provision was mainly done by truck from the nearest reliable water source, delivered in tanks fitted with tap stands. This is very costly, and so organizations involved in water supply to refugees were looking into less expensive and more sustainable water supply options.

A water truck filling up at Angaliachini water treatment plant, Itula sub-county, Obongi county, Moyo District.
Benard Nsubuga

Major challenges lay in developing more sustainable water supply options in the low groundwater potential and sparsely populated areas where many of these settlements are located. Siting good locations for boreholes, drilling in black cotton soils, and frequent hand pump failure from overuse plagued the efforts to bring a reliable water supply. Adding to the problems, in 2016 a drought led to a 20% reduction in annual rainfall, which together with severe land degradation and sharply-increased water demand, led to several streams, springs and boreholes drying up.

The environment was also vulnerable to the rapid biomass loss as a result of the insatiable energy demands, principally driven by cooking needs of both refugee and host community households, as well as for house building materials. To further complicate the situation, there was very minimal involvement and engagement of local governments in the refugee hosting districts and sector ministries in refugee coordination and management activities.

When we returned this year, a number of important improvements had taken place in the provision of safe water. Instead of trying to site more hand pumps, higher-yielding boreholes were being motorized. Water from these production wells was then pumped to raised tanks, from which water can flow by gravity to different tap stands. The energy sources used for these pumps are mainly solar or a hybrid system of both solar and diesel, the latter being used only as back-up during times of low solar radiation.

A solar powered borehole in Bidibidi zone 1.
Prossie Nakawuka/IWMI

These developments have considerably reduced water trucking rates in the settlements. In addition, investments are being made in hydrogeological studies that use remote sensing to better site boreholes. At the governance level, the Ministry of Water and Environment is taking on a more active role in refugee coordination and management activities. The local governments in the refugee hosting districts are now also actively involved in coordination, support and supervision of refugee activities. Groundwater level monitoring is also being conducted.  Drilling is being extended down to a minimum of 100m, and the wells are cased all the way to the bottom. There is better record keeping of operations, and routine water quality monitoring is now being undertaken at the district level.

Viola now has water piped directly to her block and she says it has improved the situation dramatically. A nearby tap stand is supplied by a solar electric system, and she doesn’t need to carry her jerry cans as far or as often as before. She also noticed an improvement in taste and smell of the water since its now groundwater that is not chlorinated.

Some challenges still persist: the uncertainty surrounding the number of current refugees makes fund raising, planning and delivering services complex and difficult; the operation and maintenance strategy for these water systems, as well as the exit strategies for supporting organizations, remain unclear; there is severe contamination of water at the household level; and  bringing integrated water resources management (IWRM) into refuge settlement planning and implementation has not been done..

In addition, all current water supply options in the settlements rely on groundwater extraction. There is a general feeling among stakeholders in the refugee hosting districts that other options should be investigated and funded. One such option is rain water harvesting currently carried out only on houses with tin roofs. Another option is to pump water from the River Nile to serve the needs of both the refugees and the host communities, not only for domestic use but also for irrigation and livestock.

Returning to the settlements revealed that improvements are in progress but that long-term challenges remain. The rapidly changing human and biophysical landscape makes effectively managing resources difficult, but it is critical, since it seems unlikely that the refugees will be able to return home any time soon. It is important to recognize the collaboration and generosity of the host community, as well as the tremendous progress made by partner organizations (both national and international) in such a short period of time with limited or diminishing funding. In the long-term, only a more integrated approach that simultaneously builds biomass management, water and land management, and livelihoods development for the refugees and host communities will be able to help establish sustainable futures for the people like Viola.