For Djibouti Red Crescent water is life, not a slogan

Published: 16 December 2008 0:00 CET

Titus Mung’ou and Alex Wynter in Sankhal, Djibouti

Empty wells. Empty tanks. Empty pots.

This is the stark reality facing the people of Sankhal – a rolling moonscape of scorched, rocky hills some 110 kilometres west of Djibouti city, where about 2,000 pastoralist families displaced by drought from remoter areas are trying to make a new home.

Tucked away in a lifeless landscape straddling the border between Djibouti and Ethiopia, once-nomadic pastoralists are hungry, thirsty and often sick.

A prolonged drought in Djibouti that seems, if anything, to be getting worse has left many people acutely vulnerable and in need of food and safe water. 

“We’ve not seen rain all year,” says the headman, Mahamoud Roble, 60, as he points his walking stick at the burning sky. It’s about noon. The heat is fearsome.

A depleted well which they say is actually on the Ethiopian side is the villagers’ only source of water – and visibly dirty, unsafe water at that. The consequences for the very young are often lethal.

“We lost two children yesterday from diarrhoea,” says Roble. “Many people are sick in their huts.”

Roble says “most” women and children are also malnourished.

Alternative livelihoods

Fatuma, a woman who looks after three children alone after her husband stayed in Djibouti city with some livestock, says mothers can barely breastfeed because of hunger. There is nothing else for very young children.

At the nearest hospital, in Dikhil, 40 kilometres away, manager Eleyeh Houssein Robleh confirms that acute malnutrition and diarrhoea are now the biggest problems they face.

On the way back to Dikhil from the field visit, the Red Crescent cram as many sick people as they can into the back of their aging Land Cruiser: three women, five children and an elderly man.

On arrival the diarrhoeic infants are immediately put on intravenous drips in an attempt to rehydrate them.

Asked about the position of pastoralist women, Muna Abdullahi, 28, secretary general of the local Red Crescent branch, says they face numerous challenges.

“From dawn to dusk, they struggle to look for food and water to sustain their families,” she says.

“Instead of the wild fruit they used to pick, the few living trees now provide only firewood.

“Many people require shelter, blankets, mosquito nets and food.”

The Red Crescent believes, with some help, pastoralists could find alternative livelihoods, according to Abdullahi, such as weaving for women and “agro-pastoralism” (small-scale horticulture combined with some livestock – usually goats, as this drought-stricken terrain will no longer support free-range cattle) for men.

One of Sankhal’s few lifelines is the camel train that men take every week to Dikhil to buy grain, oil, salt and other foodstuffs. 

A mobile clinic vehicle comes once a week from Dikhil, unless Djibouti soldiers in a border watchtower overlooking Sankhal radio that there’s an emergency.

Struggle to live

Water, meanwhile, is available in the Balbala squatter camp under the approach path to Djibouti international airport, provided you can pay.

Balbala hosts a mix of thousands of former pastoralists, as well as Somali refugees and migrants from Ethiopia.

A private trucking service supplies water, filling disused oil drums with clean water for domestic use.

But not everyone can afford it. As the truck leaves the village, some drums remain unfilled. “They’re the ones who can’t afford the 100 francs [more than half a US dollar] each drum costs,” says Hussein Hashin, a 41-year-old ex-soldier.

Residents use the water very sparingly – to cook, wash clothes and sustain their illegally-held livestock.

Buho Gedi, a frail widow, supports five children by gathering and selling plastic waste. These people have not given up the struggle to live, and to educate their children, some of whom sing at an improvised school that is not much more than a shelter made from branches and old bits of cloth.

But even this costs: 1,500 francs a year per child, according to teacher Farahein Mussa.

The capital has become a haven for displaced pastoralists, who migrate to do manual work or beg for food.

About a decade ago, the urban-rural ratio was 1:1, according to the Red Crescent. Now it’s more like 3:1.

Dry wadis

“We would very much like to do more to help people with water and sanitation,” says Djibouti Red Crescent (DRC) secretary general Abdi Khaireh Bouh.

“Water is a top priority.”

Moussa Djama Warsama, his deputy, puts it bluntly: “All our wadis are dry.

“People rely on wells that are often shallow, so contaminated. Digging deeper ones is very expensive.” 

Djibouti was the first stop last month for an interdisciplinary Federation assessment team – including experts on nutrition, water and sanitation, health, relief, and livelihoods – which is visiting the Horn of Africa, where an estimated 17 million people need emergency assistance before the end of the year.

The team was helping the region’s National Societies plan ways to scale up their efforts to meet what many observers continue to regard as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

They concluded their mission in Eritrea before finalizing the report that led to the new emergency appeal.