In Sudan's refugee camps, tensions rise over water

The Darfur region, where fighting has raged for two years, is having one of its worst droughts in 50 years.

Fighting has broken out over scarce water supplies in Kalma, the largest camp for internally displaced people in Darfur, western Sudan.

"My husband had been waiting an hour for water for our donkey when three youths tried to push in the line," says Miriam Bakhid Idriss, who has a neat row of stitches in her scalp. "I was hit on the head."

Organizations working in the area say that the incident is one of many fights in several camps, sparked by water shortages during one of Darfur's severest droughts in 50 years. Officials previously described the situation as an "emergency," although round-the-clock efforts have delivered some relief.

Aziz Rahman Azizi, an Afghan water-sanitation engineer working for Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF), has been cajoling delivery drivers to work overtime.

"This is the middle of the dry season, and it is getting hot. These people have been getting about six liters [6-1/2 quarts] a day. The minimum should be 10 liters [11 quarts]," he says.

Darfur is where 70,000 people have been killed and 1.85 million people have fled their homes since fighting first broke out in February 2003. Local African tribes took up arms against the government to protest the lack of development in the region; the government responded by arming militias who have attacked civilians. The US calls it genocide. Currently the African Union has 2,000 troops there monitoring human rights abuses, but the United Nations would like to see that number increased to 10,000.

Inside the Kalma camp, six local sheikhs armed with sticks guard one pump from the hundreds of women surrounding it. "We are here to keep order and to make sure that there is no more fighting over water," explains Mohammed Ibrahim Ahmed. "From small problems come big problems."

The sheikhs fear that squabbles over water could escalate into ethnic conflicts. The camp is home to large Fur and Zaghawa populations, as well as many smaller groups.

In towns like Kass, home to many smaller camps, there is additional tension between recent arrivals and those who settled in the area months ago, and who regard the water resources as their own.

In Kalma, the women are dusty and impatient under the burning sun. There is no shade - the few trees that grew around the camp have mostly been taken down for building materials and firewood.

The UN World Food Program is distributing grain, oil, and soap, and many of the women are anxious to get their water and move on to the distribution tent.

Mr. Azizi, the sanitation engineer, moves through the crowd, promising that things will be better tomorrow.

"Of course they are frustrated, we have not expanded our water supplies since November, when there were only 80,000 people here," he says. Now 150,000 inhabitants share one well, five boreholes, and 18 hand pumps that usually run dry by sunset.

Earlier this month, a group of charities installed storage tanks and begun pumping the well 24 hours a day in an effort to improve the situation.

The severe drought has contributed to food shortages when hundreds of thousands of farmers were forced off their land. Some 1.5 million people are now dependent on food aid, and the WFP predicts that the number will rise to 2.7 million next year.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.