Pumping water with the help of the sun

Tap stands set up in camps for refugees in Uganda also provide clean water for local people. Julius Kasujja / Oxfam

In three refugee camps in Uganda, a new network of solar-powered pumps is helping to ensure families have plenty of clean water.

In the South Sudan capital of Juba, fighting has forced the price of clean water so high families are having to make an impossible choice: Do they put food on the table or spend what little money they have on a necessity without which no one can live?  Food usually wins out.

But for some families who have fled the long months of conflict and sought relief across the border in Uganda, there is now some good news: In three refugee camps, Oxfam has built solar-powered systems able to pump enough water to provide people up to 20 liters per day—even more than the international emergency standard of 15 liters that aid groups try to meet. By comparison, an average American family of four people uses 400 gallons a day, or just over 1,514 liters.

The water now available to refugees at the camps in Uganda is a vast improvement over the five daily liters to which some Juba residents have been restricting themselves—with potentially dangerous consequences. With clean water in short supply, cholera, a deadly but highly preventable waterborne disease, has broken out in the capital. Since May it has taken the lives of more than 40 people.

Hardships like these are part of what have driven many South Sudanese refugees into settlements in the Arua and Adjumani districts of Uganda. At the start of the crisis, the lines for water would last all day as refugees queued to fill their jerricans from the few sources shared with the local communities. Sometimes, there was tension between the locals and the newcomers, driving refugees to look for water elsewhere—even if it wasn’t clean.

Oxfam began trucking water into the settlements to relieve some of the pressure on the limited supply. But as the number of refugees continued to grow, we sought a more sustainable and cost effective way to ensure families had the water they needed. We settled on a hybrid system for the three camps, combining solar-powered pumping with a generator for backup—typically used only when it’s cloudy.

“The systems are part of Oxfam’s preparedness plan to build the resilience of these communities,” said Oxfam’s Dorah Ntunga. “Compared to water trucking, which was very expensive, the solar system is already making up to 55 percent savings—and the savings will increase with time.”

At Baratuku, one of the refugee settlements in Adjumani,  a wide bed of 68 solar panels tilted toward the sun generates enough juice to pump water for 7,000 people a day. Each of the solar-powered systems feeds water into two large tanks that can each store 70,000 liters. From there, the water flows to seven tap stands that dot each settlement. And at each stand, six taps are available for refugees and locals to use.

Guma Patrick is a guard at one of the water systems powered by the sun where a generator is available as a backup on cloudy days. Julius Kasujja / Oxfam

Water close to home

For women like Nyang Yom, the availability of water nearby has made a big difference in her life. She no longer has to trudge a great distance searching for a clean supply and lugging it home.

“Since we arrived, I had always helped my mama with one job: fetching water,” one young refugee told Oxfam. “But now that water is close to home, I do help her with washing utensils as well, and keep our home clean.”

For Guma Patrick, a guard at one of the new pumping stations, the water network is a marvel to behold.

“I sometimes just sit and admire the system,” he said.

“The refugees and local community were wondering how it’s possible to pump water using solar since they had not seen such a system before,” said Ntunga. “They got surprised and excited because they thought systems such as this were meant for town areas only.”

The three new systems are helping to solve a range of problems, not the least of which has to do with water quality. Because the supply now comes directly from the drilled wells—and doesn’t have to be trucked from other sources such as the Nile River—the quality of the water is better, said Ntunga. Managing the system is simpler than managing a water trucking operation, and the distribution is both durable and sustainable: Oxfam has trained a teams of local residents and refugees to monitor and run the systems.

“Maintenance plans are in place to ensure the system is working well,” said Ntunga, adding that soon Oxfam will hand the network over to the office of the prime minister and the local government. And with that handover, local people will be better prepared to manage the challenges ahead—Oxfam’s goal in every emergency.

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