Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Population

ENVIRONMENT-CHAD: Peacekeepers Try To Tread Lightly

David Axe

IRIBA, Jul 4 2008 (IPS) - Polish army Lieutenant Colonel Marc Gryga didn’t realize he was planning on building his country’s major base here in eastern Chad on top of a cemetery. "It didn’t look like any cemetery you see in the United States or Europe," he says, referring to absence of headstones.

Polish army engineers build a forward operating base near Iriba, in Eastern Chad Credit: David Axe/IPS

Polish army engineers build a forward operating base near Iriba, in Eastern Chad Credit: David Axe/IPS

But local leaders from this remote town near the Sudan border weren’t shy about telling Gryga he’d screwed up – and EUFOR, the 4,000-strong European Union peacekeeping force deploying to Chad to protect Darfuri refugees and aid workers, promptly agreed to build the "North Star" base somewhere else. Fortunately Gryga’s troops had not broken ground yet, so the course change was not drastic.

The misunderstanding over the Polish base was just the first in a series of minor clashes between EUFOR and Chadians. In addition to choosing a location for the base, access to local water supplies and damage that EUFOR's military vehicles are doing to the country’s fragile roads have also caused friction.

One issue – water – might just prove too contentious for lasting compromise.

Arid eastern Chad has always suffered water shortages. In 2004, a quarter-million Darfuri refugees settled in the region, placing further strain on local water sources. Intensive labor by a wide range of aid groups – drilling new wells, building dams to catch rainwater, opening up channels to feed rain into underground reservoirs – has alleviated but not eliminated the problem.

Now EUFOR is deploying thousands of soldiers and tonnes of equipment, all requiring tens of thousands of liters of water per day – and water shortages have become a water crisis.

To be sure, EUFOR knew water would be an issue. When Gryga’s 100 troops deployed in April to begin building North Star, they chartered a Russian-made Antonov cargo plane – the second largest aircraft type in the world – to haul bottled water to Chad. But that water didn’t last long. Today the Poles – and 100 French, Irish and Belgian who work alongside them – receive weekly ground convoys of bottled water from the French logistics hub in Abéché.

The water these French convoys bring in does not come from Chadian sources – it is shipped in from foreign sources, so in one sense it’s harmless to parched eastern towns. But the trucks must travel on roads never intended for such heavy use in order to deliver the water.

These roads are especially fragile where they cross the country’s thousands of dry river beds, or wadis. During Chad’s long rainy season, from roughly June to October, the Chadian government sets up roadblocks to prevent vehicles from crossing the wadis and damaging the roads. Those that absolutely must cross pay a fee.

But French army Staff Sergeant Alexandre Barbet, whose job it is to escort the convoys, says the French drive right on through without paying. "What are they going to do?" he asks rhetorically. EUFOR considers the fees bribes.

The ongoing construction at North Star Camp is thirsty work, requiring thousands of liters of water for tamping down and leveling dirt, for example. For that, Gryga’s troops drilled their own well. But the water table in this part of Chad has been sinking due to over-use and dwindling rainfall, and Gryga’s well has proved a disappointment. There’s only one option left: local wells.

"We are trying to avoid taking sanitary water from local wells," Gryga says. "But because the water resources here are so limited, we have to take that water from time to time. We do want to avoid the impression that we are endangering the local population by taking too much water."

"We must share," Polish defense minister Bogdan Kilch said during a June 28 visit to Iriba, referring to the area’s water.

Bakhit Abdaraman, Iriba’s sultan, agreed, but said that water supplies simply won’t meet everyone needs. "We’ve got to search (for new sources)," he said. Engineers working for aid groups in Iriba stress that it is getting harder and harder to dig new viable wells due to the water table sinking from overuse.

In the meantime, EUFOR continues to rely heavily on existing water sources. On the morning of July 27, a French logistics team from North Star paid a visit to Help, an aid group with offices in eastern Chad, to draw some water from their well. They left with 8,000 liters – enough to meet the needs of 500 typical Chadian families for one day. That water, stored in huge rubber bladders, will supply North Star’s kitchen, showers and laundry for a couple weeks.

The same French team knows all too well the impression EUFOR is making on the local population. Many of those Chadians who are aware of EUFOR’s mission to protect refugees and aid workers generally approve of such. But when it comes to the fine details, the foreign military presence rankles some.

On July 26, the French team drove into Iriba in two trucks in order to buy some soft drinks and cigarettes for the tiny bar the team runs after hours at North Star. Chief Mendi Bouland invited this reporter to come along, but stressed keeping a low profile: certain Iriba neighborhoods didn’t like seeing foreigners, he said.

Sure enough, in Iriba’s teeming open-air market, men shouted and raised their fists until the team ducked around a corner. Finding a friendly shopkeeper at an indoor stall, Bouland bought some soap, then swapped phone numbers and promised to come back soon.

"Relations are actually pretty good, as far as the French go," Bouland says, adding that France’s long history in Chad – first as a colonizer, now as a firm backer of President Idriss Deby’s regime – has left deep linguistic and cultural ties. But the Poles, he says, are another matter.

Gryga’s conscious of his public relations problem. He says he meets once or twice a week with local government and tribal leaders in order to keep them informed of EUFOR’s activities and to solicit their opinions. And he’s offering an olive branch to make up for taking water and damaging roads. Once the full Polish contingent has arrived in August, Gryga says he will rebuild the wadi roads and donate supplies to local primary schools. Security still will be his main mission, he says, "but security isn’t everything."

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