Photo credits: © Jason Seagle
Diary from South Sudan: Part two
The second in a three part series of blogs about the crisis in South Sudan from Nick Radin, our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Co-ordinator.
Nov 5 2014
In September 2014, Nick went to South Sudan to see the impact of Action Against Hunger’s water and sanitation work on the health and lives of communities.
Today brought a visit to Action Against Hunger’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) project: a mixture of ongoing and completed work.
We arrived at the Wunrok base, an hour from Alek, at 7.30am. We had intended to visit an IDP camp where Action Against Hunger is supporting the population with water, sanitation and hygiene services and cash grants.
Unfortunately, rainfall had made the route impassable, so instead we visited a different camp where Action Against Hunger still administers cash grants, but a different agency is in charge of WaSH.
The visit offered me a glimpse into current camp environments and the general issues that need to be addressed (the four IDP camps in the zone are all similar to one another). Water supply was good, as boreholes had been developed, but latrines remained a concern.
Unusually, the issue was not a lack of latrines for the IDP population, but that the heavy rains had pooled water around existing latrines, eroding the ground and causing subsidence, which had collapsed many of the latrine pits. This rendered the latrines unusable, a hygiene risk (with faeces exposed to flies) and a safety risk as children playing or people walking at night could potentially fall into the pits. Latrine decommissioning is urgently required and an Action Against Hunger team will begin work on this soon.
On the way to the camp I faced a barrage of questions from Action Against Hunger South Sudanese staff, who were curious to know about the differences between London and South Sudan. Could people afford food in London? What happens if low rains mean that harvests fail? How do you survive in the UK if you don’t have a job? What happens if some people in the nation want political independence (an apt question given it timed with the Scottish independence vote)? Do we have desert lands? Could they visit the UK? Could they get a job there?
My colleagues really enjoyed hearing about life in Britain and I did my best to satisfy their curiosity, while asking plenty of questions about South Sudan.
Next, we visited several villages where Action Against Hunger was either doing assessments to prepare upcoming WaSH work, or where the organisation had recently completed WaSH projects.
Villages are selected using a number of criteria, a major one being the rate of malnutrition. There is a strong relationship between water-related diseases and malnutrition. Diarrhoea means that nutrients pass through the body before they can be absorbed, appetites are reduced, and the body’s immunity to infection is compromised – all leading to a greater risk of malnutrition.
The villages under assessment did not have any latrines, and people openly defecating created huge public health risks. Furthermore, in some of the villages people were collecting water from open streams and swamp land, which was being consumed directly without any treatment. Such villages are likely to be selected to benefit from our WaSH projects in the very near future.
Action Against Hunger’s boreholes (tube wells) were also visited. While, reassuringly, these all were working, some were not being hygienically maintained. Drainage channels had become blocked and water was backing up and even overflowing, creating muddy and stagnant water pools close to the pumps.
Despite Action Against Hunger appointing and training water user committees to maintain water points, this system often experiences problems, and booster training may be required.
The evening was a chance to relax, and we headed back to the base for a dinner of rice and beans - the archetypal meal in South Sudan.
Another early start at 6.30am to head back towards the Alek base.
On the way, we visited another IDP camp followed by a visit to see a block of latrines in a market place that Action Against Hunger had constructed. These appeared in good condition.
As we were moving on to another base, Malualkon, in Northern Bahr el Gazal State, I gave a quick debriefing, which led to interesting discussions about how future projects could evolve.
The needs in South Sudan, in water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) and other sectors, remain enormous, but NGOs need to strike a balance between the delivery of requisite humanitarian assistance and the creation of dependency upon humanitarian aid.
This is not easily done. If dependency is created then NGOs will not be able to disengage and move on to helping vulnerable populations elsewhere, but if insufficient humanitarian aid is delivered then lives may be put at risk.
Rather than drive directly to Malualkon base, we first visited an ODF (open defecation free) village. This status is achieved when the members of each household in the village use a latrine rather than defecating outside.
In a culture that traditionally does not use latrines and is often not aware of the public health risks of faeces, it can be very difficult to accomplish. As more than 1 billion people in the world do not have latrines, it will be too costly an exercise to fund or subsidize household-level latrines.
Consequently, humanitarian agencies need to promote the importance of latrines to communities, to the point where the community themselves decide to build their own latrines without any material assistance or remuneration. In rural South Sudan, where people’s means are very limited, this can be a very hard sell, and completed latrines may seem rudimentary as they are constructed of local materials.
However, the Action Against Hunger team has developed effective techniques to achieve this, and their efforts are bearing fruit: eight villages have been declared ‘ODF’.
The village we visited had to be accessed on foot due to rains having rendered the road impassable. This involved a brisk 30 minute walk through the bush. Villagers there were busy collecting and drying the sorghum harvest. This will be stored to provide food for the year, and excess will be sold.
The harvest in this area appears below average, and the population will not have sufficient stock to see them through to next year’s harvest. But the village’s food situation will not be nearly as critical as in other parts of South Sudan.
The household latrines appeared to be good, and the population, who had also benefitted from ACF rehabilitating their borehole and providing hygiene education, seemed very satisfied with the ACF project.
Through one of our local staff who translated, I spoke to one woman who gave an interesting female perspective about how the project had helped her.
Finally we walked back to the main road to rejoin our vehicle for the four-hour drive to Malualkon base. Rice and beans for dinner again.
Help the forgotten children of South Sudan