The Uganda Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are scaling up emergency water treatment and latrine construction in northern Uganda as thousands of refugees fleeing violence and hunger in South Sudan stream into the country daily.
As of this week, a new Red Cross water treatment facility in Arua District started pumping over 400,000 litres of water a day from the Nile River into storage tanks, where it is filtered, treated and tested for quality, before being trucked to nearby Rhino Camp, currently home to 86,000 refugees. At capacity, the plant will treat 1 million litres of potable water per day.
The new facility was set up by specialists from IFRC and the Uganda, Swedish, Austrian and German Red Cross Societies. It supplements more than 2.5 million litres of treated water that the Uganda Red Cross is already supplying daily to tens of thousands of refugees at three sprawling and overstretched settlements in the region. With the addition of the new plant, the Red Cross is supplying purified water to 235,000 people every day.
“Red Cross teams are working hard to keep up with the staggering flow of refugees into northern Uganda by making sure they have safe and clean water to drink and upgrading sanitation and hygiene,” says Noor Pwani, who coordinates IFRC’s emergency water, sanitation and hygiene programmes in East Africa.
“This is the only way we’re going to stave off infectious diseases— a major concern given unsanitary conditions at crowded settlements and the coming rainy season when vector and water-borne diseases flourish.”
With refugee settlements in Uganda swelling beyond capacity, a new site called Imvepi opened in late February for new arrivals. In less than a month, over 30,000 refugees are living there, including 12,000 new arrivals camped out at a reception centre with only 35 latrines.
“That translates into an alarming ratio of 1 latrine to 343 people at the centre, when the standard is 1 to 20, “Pwani adds. “Many ultimately defecate in the open, increasing the risk of disease spread. We have our work cut out for us to rapidly plug huge sanitation gaps.”
The Uganda Red Cross, with support from IFRC and the British Red Cross, is quickly building another 50 latrines at the reception centre. Digging started today. They will then focus on constructing 4,000 household latrines for the new arrivals once they move to allocated plots of land. The Red Cross teams will also expand health and hygiene promotion and insecticide spraying at the settlement.
Uganda is now host to over 780,000 South Sudanese refugees, according to UNHCR. An average of 2,500 cross the border every day following harrowing journeys to escape attacks on their villages, indiscriminate killing, abuse, rape and looting. Violence and displacement prevent people from farming. That, coupled with a crippling drought, has led to severe food shortages and hunger. The malnourished, especially children, are far more susceptible to other diseases and easily succumb to them if they don’t receive proper care, which is the case in many areas of South Sudan, where health services have largely collapsed.
“Every day we see refugee families arriving at the border hungry, scared, sick and weak,” describes Irene Nakasitta of the Uganda Red Cross Society, which is stationed at border points to register new arrivals and ensure their safe transport to reception centres where the Red Cross provides additional screening, shelter and assistance.
“Mothers often arrive alone, struggling to carry their babies and a few belongings, covered with dust from head to toe. Many are pregnant or breast feeding. They are so fatigued and desperate and their needs are so great that sometimes we do not know where to start. But we give all the refugees care and comfort and then they know they have arrived in a safe and better place.”
From the reception centres, Red Cross teams accompany refugees to the settlements in northern Uganda. In addition to water treatment, sanitation and hygiene promotion, Uganda they also deliver first aid, first aid training and other health services at the settlements, as well as food, household items, psychosocial care, and a range of assistance and protection for unaccompanied children, including family tracing and reunification.
“The needs and challenges we face in northern Uganda are rising daily as more refugees cross in,” says Robert Kwesiga, Uganda Red Cross Secretary General. “We are grateful for the support of our Red Cross and Red Crescent partners. Their assistance is enabling us to offer basic but life-saving support to tens of thousands of people, every day.”
IFRC is the world`s largest humanitarian network comprising 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies working to save lives and promote dignity around the world.