By Robert Fraser, IFRC
Despite the vast scale of the refugee camp, night in Palorinya, Northern Uganda can be eerily quiet. “We arrived here late at night,” Roy McGroarty, operations manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said. “We found that the most recent arrivals – possibly as many as 30,000 people – had no materials for shelter and were trying to sleep in the open.”
By morning, the scale of the needs in the camp became apparent to McGroarty. “As far as the eye could see in every direction, small groups of families were trying to cope. It had rained the previous night and there was little protection for these families, and few sanitation facilities,” he said. “People were waiting for even basic services.”
In the last six months there has been a steady increase in people fleeing violence in South Sudan and looking for safety in Palorinya. Resources, and the capacity of the government and humanitarian agencies, are stretched.
A government official organizing arrivals in the reception centre said there were many challenges, but water was one of the biggest. At present more than half of the safe water at the camp is provided by teams from the Uganda Red Cross Society. Water is taken from several sites along the Nile, treated and transported long distances to the camp.
Grace Kyagaba, the society’s water and sanitation (WASH) coordinator, said maintaining this level of support was a major operation. “We have teams of staff and volunteers working up to 15 hours a day to meet demand. We will need to expand that capacity even more and we’re looking forward to the WASH emergency response unit about to arrive to boost our efforts bringing more equipment, vehicles and technicians from Red Cross societies in Sweden, Germany and Austria,” she said. “Our equipment is nearing the end of its life, though. Water pumps especially have been overworked beyond their capacity and it is a struggle to keep them going, if one breaks down, our production is reduced until we get it up and running again.”
Robert Kwesiga, Secretary General of the Uganda Red Cross Society, said that, although they were having a significant impact on water and sanitation needs in the camp, there was a real chance that a major disease outbreak would occur. “We have serious concerns over the health of the refugees, especially related to sanitation and hygiene promotion,” he said. “It is only a question of time before major health threats turn into reality, so we need to redouble our efforts to prevent this and be prepared to react quickly. What we fear most is that even more refugees are expected to arrive.”
In addition to water and sanitation services, the Red Cross is also supporting efforts to reunite families – especially unaccompanied children – and to provide other health services.