PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — An Uganda Journey, Part 8

Water. It’s something many people in the developed world take for granted. That what comes out of our faucets won’t kill us.

However, having just recovered from what was most likely a water-borne infection, thanks to the wonders of modern antibiotics, I am incredibly aware of just how precious clean water is and just how deadly contaminated water can be. I was very sick. Without antibiotics my outcome could easily have been very different, as it is every day for women and children in refugee camps.

In places like the refugee camps, especially like those in northern Uganda, where the temperatures were above 100 degrees each day of our visit, water is life. Or death. Water is retrieved daily, mostly by women, at boreholes. In refugee camps, different nongovermental organizations have unique responsibilities. For example, the U.N. Food Program provides the half-ration(1,050 calories per day/$3.02 a month) of food the refugees receive.

The Lutheran World Federation carries the responsibility for water supply in refugee camps as part of its mission. Normally, I am a huge fan of LWF and I admire its work, especially on water issues, throughout the world. However, it is also a huge multinational NGO and with it carries all of the bureaucracy that can result.

What that means is that when something goes wrong, it is often next to impossible to address the issue, which is what happened with the water at the Olua and Mungula settlements. Because there was clearly a problem with the water, people, especially children, were dying from cholera and dysentery caused by contaminated water.

After some exploration, the staff on the ground working for South Sudan Leadership and Community Development figured out the source. The boreholes had been placed too close to the latrines, and so the waste was seeping into the water source.

The solution was neither superexpensive for a large NGO like LWF, perhaps $5,000 to $6,000 (or challenging) to replace the piping in the boreholes to make them impenetrable to the waste run off. The result would be a game-changer though, preserving the lives of those who were dying.

Unfortunately, the cries of the dying and those advocating for them fell on deaf ears. No one would respond and in the event they did, it would take months for them to determine what everyone already knew. The water was killing people.

After going around and around, the board of SSLCD was faced with a tough choice. We are a small organization with a very focused mission: to promote the cooperatives and enhance the leadership of the people in the camp with community development. While $5,000 to $10,000 isn’t much to a large NGO, it is a “huge” amount of our budget.

But we also had a moral obligation. People were dying. We knew why. And we could stop it. So we went the extra mile, deviated from our mission and secured the funds to keep the water from killing the children, at least as directly as it was before we fixed the pipes.

One of the reasons Denise, Christine and I traveled to Uganda was to see firsthand what life is like on the ground for these refugees and to be able to tell their stories. But it was in living part of their story, and knowing firsthand what happens when you get a waterborne illness, that made me realize just how vital our work is for their survival in a world where the antibiotics that cured me aren’t easy to get. It really is the difference between life and death.


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