Water and Kebabiya

In the shade of a lean-to, on a table covered with a sheet of orange plastic, Oxfam’s Ahmed Mohamed sets down a bowl of fruit. Much of it has come from a private Garden of Eden not far from the center of Kebkabiya, a small town in North Darfur, Sudan, in which about 60,000 displaced people have settled in the last three years. They have fled the violence that has wracked the region since early 2003 and are now waiting for peace promised – but not yet delivered – in a deal signed in May.

Photo: Fetching water is a time-consuming task for many people in Kebkabiya, a town in North Darfur packed with tens of thousands of displaced people. But at least the water is now clean and fresh. Oxfam helped to install the first water system the town has ever had Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson/OxfamWhile they wait, they continue to rely on food handed out by the United Nation’s World Food Program, an offering that has varied little in the three years it has kept them alive: sorghum, beans, oil, salt, a little bit of sugar. To keep it coming, that agency is going to need a heap of support.

On our flight from Khartoum to Darfur yesterday, the stewardess offered passengers copies of the Sudan Tribune. In a front-page story, the paper warned that the UN food program needs $746 million this year if it is going to be able to feed more than 6 million hungry people across Sudan, including here in Darfur.

Reading that story made me think about the balance of things in Sudan and Khartoum, where an enormous change has swept the capital since my last visit nearly two years ago: the city feels prosperous with its western-style shops, new buildings, Internet cafes, and streams of cars—all luxuries oil money has showered on the people there. Had any of that wealth made its way out to Darfur, I wondered? The Tribune headline left me doubtful.

Mangoes, oranges, and bananas fill Ahmed's bowl. The public health engineer here in Kebkabiya, he and Jackson Wayongo, a well driller from Kenya, are sharing their house with us for the next few days. In this hot, dry climate where my tongue and lips feel constantly parched, drinks are the first thing they offer us when we drag in the door, and now they have provided lunch.

The fruit in the bowl has a uniform plumpness: squat bananas, sweet and cool, are about as tall as the mangoes, and the oranges are only a little wider. Water is the source of the bounty in this bowl—water that is growing scarce as the dry weather hangs on day after day in Kebkabiya.

The wet season is supposed to start in July, and though occasional bursts have left a few muddy puddles in some of the dirt tracks through which we drive, replenishing rains have so far held off this first week of the month. Everyone is waiting. The wells are running low.

We take a tour of the water system Oxfam has helped to install in this community packed with displaced people. It’s the first one Kebkabiya has ever had, says Ahmed.

“It’s not a small system. It’s big,” he says. “Pipelines, tap stands, tanks, pumps, chlorination, bacteriological tests—daily.”

Photo: With four pairs of hands on the pump, this gang of girls in Kebkabiya, North Darfur, can fill a 20-liter jerrican in one and a half minutes  Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson/OxfamTap stands—the end point in the system from which people draw their water—are busy places. So are the hand pumps, where women and girls take turns at the handle, often throwing their whole bodies into the chore in a kind of rhythmic dance. It looks tiring.

Photo: With four pairs of hands on the pump, this gang of girls in Kebkabiya, North Darfur, can fill a 20-liter jerrican in one and a half minutes  Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam

Caretakers monitor the generators that power the pumps that feed the system’s massive holding tanks, called T45s. The caretakers chlorinate the water daily to ensure its cleanliness. But there is not much they can do when the rain won’t come and the wells run low, except to scrounge for more water. In a dry wadi—a seasonal river bed—the Oxfam engineers have installed a second, temporary pump connected to a water source underground in the hope of preventing a nearby well from running dry. So far, the engineers are winning the race.

As the afternoon wears on, dark clouds begin to pile up over a range of jagged mountains in the distance. People glance at the sky hopefully. Will the clouds come this way bringing rain with them? A burst of wind holds hope. It kicks up a mad spiral of dust that slams into a block of compounds, eliciting a panicked braying from the donkeys hovering nearby. A few drops fall, but only enough to pock the sandy soil.

 I think about water here in Africa—in dusty red Ethiopia from where I have just come—and now in the dry, rocky desert we flew over in a United Nations helicopter to reach remote Kebkabiya. Here, nearly 80,000 people depend on the crystal clear supply that bursts from the pumps Oxfam has installed. Without it, could all these people—three-quarters of them displaced by the conflict—survive here?

Red, black, yellow—those are the colors we saw down below from the helicopter. No green, except the faintest hint of it in overgrazed stretches of pasture and in the occasional cluster of trees somehow pulling life from the bone-dry wadis. That’s why a small, square plot of cultivated land carefully divided into about six sections on the edge of a village caught my eye as we roared over. It was so green it looked electrified. Water—and hard work—are the secrets to that desert miracle.

Photo: A gallon of water—or 3.785 liters—weighs more than eight pounds. Even the youngest of children in Kebkabiya, North Darfur, tote home spine-crunching loads Credit: Eva-Lotta Jansson/OxfamWithout water, there would be no bowl of fruit at lunch to honor us visitors, there would be no garden in Kebkabiya, no private oasis in the middle of the parched landscape. After lunch, we visit that garden—or the edge of it since it’s private—and I think about the mangoes that grow there.

“They have three wells,” Ala Eldeen Mohamed tells me, as we look across the dry fields of the local residents to the island of dense green. Ala is a water and sanitation officer for Oxfam and knows all there is to know about water delivery in this poor town. “The man is a rich man. He’s a very rich man.”

I think about the oil money coursing through Khartoum and everything it is buying for the people in the capital. Couldn’t they share some of it to buy more water—more wells, pumps, irrigation systems—for the farmers in Kebkabiya, too?


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