By: Nina deVries
In South Sudan, water supply and hygiene services have been deeply affected by the ongoing conflict. It’s estimated just under half of the population has access to safe water. But a newly restored treatment plant is already improving the lives of residents in a northern city.
BENTIU, South Sudan – July 7, 2017 – Imagine having to fetch water every day and having to spend more than an hour to get to a river and back to do it. Now imagine having to do that using a wheelchair.
This was the challenge Nyahok Yar faced every day in her town of Bentiu, in the north of South Sudan. Nyahok had to wheel herself along on a tricycle to get what is a basic human necessity, sometimes in temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius. When the rainy season came, the journey was almost impossible.
“Sometimes during the rainy season, it was too muddy, I couldn’t move with my bike to get water and I was stuck in my house,” says Nyahok sitting outside her home.
She had to rely on neighbours to help her get water. There were times, though, when no aid was available, so she had to go out on her own in the rain, where she could find herself stranded for hours on the road.
“Sometimes when I was stuck on the road, I used to have to stay all night because no one was helping me and I was away from my children and I was so worried, nobody was caring for them,” says Nyahok.
Nyahok lives at the Kochthei camp, a home for internally displaced people in Bentiu. It has been open about two months and currently houses about 320 families. The site is managed by the Danish Refugee Council with UNICEF support. It was created to help those who continue to flee the civil war in South Sudan.
The country’s water supply and hygiene services have been severely affected by the conflict which began in 2013. Nearly five million of the most vulnerable people in the country are in need of access to safe water and basic sanitation facilities. Many water points have been damaged because of the conflict or made dysfunctional due to lack of repairs, including Bentiu’s water treatment plant.
However, through an initiative funded by USAID, UNICEF and its partners are working to improve the lives of people like Nyahok.
Bentiu’s water treatment plant was rehabilitated and upgraded in Bentiu in May 2016. The water supply system is now fully operational and the plant produces about 500,000 litres per day of safe, treated water. The water is then pumped to 24 water points across the city, including a water pump near Nyahok’s camp.
Now it takes her only five minutes to collect water with the help of her children, making it possible for her to make the journey several times a day.
Elizabeth Bonareri Mose, UNICEF’s water and sanitation specialist in Bentiu says the focus in this first phase of the urban water program is to ensure children have access to safe water at home, at school and in public places.
“The renovation of Bentiu treatment plant was carried out in order to ensure populations that were settling in Bentiu Town, have access to sustainable safe drinking water among children and their families,” she says. “The urban water supply programme links with the ongoing emergency response and supports communities returning to their homes after being displaced.”
Angelina Nyakuma lives in Bentiu town and sells firewood to make a living. She says her life was difficult before a water pump was restored at the Machakos Primary School near her home.
The mother of six says she used to fetch water from a river and says it would take about two hours to walk there. One day she was carrying a jerry can for her water when she spotted a crocodile in the river. It slammed the jerry can away from her but she decided to try and retrieve it from the water where she was bitten by a snake.
“It was very terrible, my health was reduced, the area bitten by the snake still gets swollen, even though it’s mainly healed,” she says.
Angelina is thrilled that now she can access water close by and where her children also attend school.
“The water we get from the school here, I use it to prepare food for my kids and do other things at home, we are all happy,” she says.
Unsafe water puts people at increased risk for waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. A cholera outbreak that first began in July 2016 continues to claim lives in in many parts of the country.
When 15 year old student Mary Nyakuma Peter lost her sister to a water borne disease she was devastated. About three months ago Mary’s entire family got sick with diarrhoea. She says they all managed to recover except for her younger sister Nyakuth who was only 13 years old.
The two of them were close and shared each other’s secrets and dreams. The death could’ve easily been prevented says Mary.
“I’m feeling so sad about what happened, it was all because of the dirty water, if the clean water was there – then she might not have become sick and passed away. We trusted each other all the time and we loved each other,” says Mary.
The school’s headmaster James Thudan Kuol says more students have begun attending school since the water stand was rehabilitated.
“Good things are happening now,” he says. “The teachers are here and the children have come, a good number of them, there is a now a feeding program installed – all of that was possible because of clean and easy access to water,” says the headmaster.
And it’s not just in schools where the USAID funded initiative is helping. The Bentiu hospital is also now receiving clean, safe water.
Giel Samuel is the Chief Executive Director of the hospital. He says accessing clean water is crucial for treating patients, sspecially as the hospital is now seeing an increase of patients with illnesses such as malaria due to the rainy season. Across the country UNICEF has supported 483,912 people to access safe water and over 174,569 IDPs and host community members have received access to safe sanitation facilities.
For women like Nyahok, Angelina and young girls like Mary, this is life changing, not only for them, but their communities.