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REFUGEES-CHAD: Water and Wood Shortages Worsen

David Axe

IRIBA, Jun 26 2008 (IPS) - Every morning soon after sunrise, Fatne Abdaraman walks a short distance across the Iridimi refugee camp in eastern Chad hauling a twenty-litre plastic jug. She lines it up along with other women's containers at the water distribution point, then awaits her turn to draw her daily allotment of one of Central Africa's scarcest resources, one that underpins ongoing conflict in the region.

By some estimates, eastern Chad will be stripped bare of firewood within a year. Credit: Anne Holmes/IPS

By some estimates, eastern Chad will be stripped bare of firewood within a year. Credit: Anne Holmes/IPS

Fair access to water and firewood are motivators in rebellions in Chad, Central Africa and the Darfur region of Sudan, according to Alain Lapierre, a manager with aid group CARE International.

Indeed, these two things are never far from the minds of Abdaraman, the other 18,000 North Darfuri refugees in Iridima and the original residents of the nearby town of Iriba. Both vital resources were in short supply even before the Darfur conflict sent 250,000 refugees streaming into eastern Chad. Now they're being consumed faster than Mother Nature can replenish them – and shifting weather patterns are taking their toll, too.

Despite desperate efforts by international aid groups, local authorities estimate the wood will run out next year. Water might soon follow.

But today, there's enough water in Iridimi's modern distribution system to fill Abdaraman's container. And when there isn't? "I just walk to the other well," she explains while filling her jug from a stainless steel spigot, children thronging around her.

But the other well is half a mile away and lies outside the camp. The half-hour donkey ride isn't just hot and tedious, it can be dangerous, too, considering the rise in banditry and Sudanese rebel activity in eastern Chad, the latter blamed mostly on the Sudan-based National Alliance group, which seeks to overthrow Chadian President Idriss Deby.

It's a traditional open well, 15-metres deep, plugged directly into an underground reservoir. The water that emerges here is fresh, clean and rich in minerals. Problem is, the well was dug years ago by the residents of Iriba – and they don't like refugees using it. Soon after the refugee camp at Iridimi was established in 2004, fights broke out at the well between women from Iriba and those from the camp. The two sides formed a traditional committee to mediate water spats, and today the well is raucous, with women elbowing for space at the well's edge, but full-fledged fights are rare.

But in a broader sense, Iridimi's water problems are just beginning – and they are having a knock-on effect on the firewood shortage, too.

Adrian Djimdim, a CARE manager working at Iridimi, says his teams are having to dig deeper and deeper to hit ground water for new wells.

"And when you start finding it, there might not be as much as you thought," chimes in Abdoulay Dramon, an engineer for CARE.

The two men are trying everything they can think of to stretch the camp's water supply. Where the modern electrical water pumps are inadequate, they install manual pumps. And they're trying out new ways of capturing more of Chad's intense, but brief, summer rains.

Typically, rain water streams too fast down parched riverbeds – called "wadis" – for the ground to sponge it up and make it available to the wells. So Djimdim and Dramon have begun building makeshift dams along wadis in and around the camp. "The idea is to… slow it down so it can soak the ground," Dramon says.

They started with a small dam system in a wadi leading to a garden inside the camp. This year their big project is a reinforced concrete dam in a bigger wadi nearby. But even that dam might prove a disappointment, as Chad's traditionally four-month-long rainy season has been growing shorter, a phenomenon Lapierre blames on global climate change.

Even if the rains returned to normal and the dams worked as advertised, it might be too late to save Iridimi's dwindling wood supply. The U.N. recommends that the refugees get just under a kilo of firewood per day, says Caroline St. Mleux from CARE, but at Iridimi, there is just a third that amount per person. And the problem is getting worse. Iridimi president Abu Abbaker Atom says the wood will run out next year.

In one sense, the wood already has run out. No one collects dead wood in Iridimi any more – there simply isn't any. To provide for the refugees, a local nonprofit called Adesk scours the countryside. Every morning at 3 am, Adesk collectors head out in lumbering heavy-duty trucks. They return to Iridimi 6 hours later with up to 3 tons of dry, twisted branches in the back, each one begged or pilfered from someone else's backyard.

Refugee women climb atop and toss the wood down for bundling, weighing and distribution. At the weigh station, Amdalal Usman Abakar says there's never enough wood for her and her six children. (Her husband is still in Sudan.) Each of the camp's ten zones gets just one delivery per month – and the deliveries are getting tougher and tougher for Adesk.

At first, the group collected wood from just outside the camp. Now collectors travel as far as 60 kilometres away, sometimes even across the border with Sudan. With each kilometer the collectors must travel, their work becomes more expensive, more dangerous and less likely to succeed.

Planting more trees is the only long-term solution to the wood shortage – and CARE does have a small nursery at Iridimi where two shifts of around 20 workers – all refugees – tend thousands of tiny seedlings. But many of the young trees die from a lack of water, Djimdim says, and even those that survive might need three years before they start producing firewood.

In the meantime, Iridimi is pinning its hopes on an unlikely combination of high technology and old-fashioned technique. CARE is handing out $100-dollar "Save 80" stoves to all families with three or more people. These sophisticated, heat-trapping metal stoves use just 20-percent as much wood as an open fire, hence the name.

But due to their cost, the Save 80s are only slowly trickling in, according to St. Mleux. So many Iridimi families have relearned/rediscovered traditional methods of enclosing an open fire in an earthen shell, essentially duplicating the Save 80's heat-saving technology.

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