“Water was the biggest thing,” says journalist Tim McDonnell of the scene at the refugee settlement of Palorinya in northern Uganda. Since December, 146,000 South Sudanese have crossed the border, fleeing the violence of the civil war. And without enough water to drink, they would quite literally die.
He’d see them line up each day with their jerrycans to get the 15 liters of water for daily use. That’s a little less than 4 gallons — the minimum for daily needs according to the World Health Organization. And it has to cover drinking, cooking, washing up and other sanitation needs. By contrast, an average family in the U.S. goes through 300 gallons a day.
McDonnell had come to Africa on a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship. His goal was to cover climate change and its impact on food. At Palorinya, he saw that the simple need for water was a topic to explore as well. He made a short documentary about the challenge of getting water to hundreds of thousands of people. The film is premiering on Goats and Soda.
Some of the refugees get their water from local ground wells, says Vanessa Cramond, an emergency medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, which is on the scene to aid in water distribution. But there’s not enough for everyone. So water is pumped from the Nile River, filtered to remove particles and purified with chemicals, then trucked to the settlement for 100,000 or so of the refugees in this arid region. The drive could be up to an hour and a half.
“This is an emergency system” while ground water wells are drilled at the settlement, she says.
“Water is really life blood,” says Jaya Murphy, chief of communications for UNICEF in Uganda. “It’s urgent to provide clean drinking water right off the bat.”
One of the most striking scenes in the film is the long line of jerrycans set up at the distribution points.
One of the women waiting for water is Leya Jogo, a widow in her 40s and an elementary school teacher. She has given birth to six children but only two survived. She spent six months trying to find a place to live that was safe from the violence plaguing South Sudan. Eventually she arrived at Palorinya with her kids, her mother and some children of family and friends she had informally adopted.
“When we reached here, really there was no water. You can stand the whole day, and you may not get water,” she says. “We’re in great suffering because of water. Without water, one cannot go his or her life, especially mothers with children. That’s why I spend most of my time to struggle to the water.”
Efforts are underway to create a permanent water source for Palorinya, says Cramond of Doctors Without Borders. But in the short term, the rainy season could pose new challenges for getting water to the refugees. Trucks may not be able to easily make the drive from the Nile to the camp in torrential rains. If mud slides into the river the water will need more filtering. And when puddles of water collect on the ground, children may drink out of them and be at risk of water-borne diseases.
Making the film gave McDonnell a deeper understanding of just how precious water is. In Palorinya, he says, “You just dry right out when you’re standing there. It’s so dusty, and the idea of not being able to wash your hands or face or the clothing you’re sweating into … or just get a drink.”