Water, everywhere

Guest blog

A RedR trustee, Paul recently retired from Oxfam as Senior Humanitarian Representative after 36 years with the organisation. A mechanical engineer and technical teacher by training, Paul spent 9 years in industry before joining Oxfam in 1975.   He was seconded to the UN in 2002 to co-ordinate the water and sanitation (WASH) relief effort in the event of an invasion, and again from 2005-9 to set up the global WASH Cluster.   He has worked across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. 

When I was working for Oxfam in the refugee camps of northern Somalia in 1979 supplying water was fraught with problems.  Water supply was not the issue, it was more technical than that – it was all about equipment.  Engineers in the field were all ordering different pumps to carry water to the camps – from Japan, from all over Europe — and the parts that came over from these suppliers just weren’t meeting expectations. You’d get a 3-inch pump with a 2 and a half-inch outlet.  No standardisation at all.  And when the pumps broke down, they all needed different spare parts. 

At Oxfam we decided to contract out the development of a simple water kit for use in emergencies to Imperial College London, and Surrey University.  We also employed a consulting engineer.   The spec for the kit was it had to provide 20 litres of clean water per person per day for 5000 people.  This spec came from the World Health Organisation.

Once the prototype kit was ready to be mass-produced, private tank and pump manufacturing companies  got to work.

We had to troubleshoot problems on the job.  How many litres of water did we need to store, and how much did we need to purify & distribute after that?  How many taps were needed?  How many tap bars?  What’s the ideal type of pump?  What sort of size of pipework?  Flow?  Pressure?    We worked out we need 36 taps on 36 tap bars.  We used 3-inch diameter PVC pipework for piping from pump to tank.  Then, when we got to the tap bars, we reduced down to 32mm polyethylene pipe.   That was the kit for pumping and storing water, but we all know there’s more to it than that.   We also developed a toolkit package – everything you need for clearing a space, then construction and plumbing, a well-digging kit and an auger kit – this is a kind of mini-borehole tool, essentially a big corkscrew you can screw into ground down to 10 metres.

We soon realized you have to stay flexible when you’re dealing with crises on so many different scales. In the initial stages our biggest tank was 50,000litre, but in the Great Lakes Crisis of 1995-6 our kits had to provide water  to 2.4 million people in huge camps across Tanzania and Burundi.  Then it was better to design 100,000litre tank kits.  These were made from galvanized sheets brought together to form a ring.  They had a butile rubber liner, so no cement work was necessary, and huge amounts of water could be stored very quickly.  On the other hand, in the aftermath of an earthquake you need small tanks storing only 11,000 litres, which are ideal when the refugee camp is perched on a hillside. 

Impact immeasurable

Water is the basis of life.  These kits provided us with a range of packages that we were able to drop out of a plane into the wilderness, so that aid workers had everything they needed to take water from a source, pump it into storage tanks, treat it, and then pump it again to a tap bar. 

Our kits were used for well over a decade in most large scale refugee camps across the middle east, Africa and South Asia. I remember the camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo back in 1995.  Some of those camps were so big and appalling.  People were dropping like flies.  One camp I took over had 350,000 refugees in it.  It was 10km long,  and 45km from the water source.   

The day we brought water to the camp, it was like Christmas. We wasted lots of water that day and there were enormous spillages, but the kids were thrilled there was so much water everywhere. Everyone went crazy, they were just so happy.  It changed the atmosphere in the camp radically.