Iraq: Getting water out of stones

Oxfam Media Officer Alex Renton reports from Jordan on Oxfam International's relief effort for refugees on the Jordan/Iraq border
"This place looks like God roasted it," said Raphael Mutiku.

We were travelling through the Badiyat ash Sham, the great desert that stretches from Jordan and Syria for hundreds of miles into Iraq. It must be one of the cruellest places on the planet. As we drove the three hours from Jordan's capital, Amman, sand storms rose from the jagged black stones that stretch to the horizon, blowing hard enough to rock the car. When we got out at Ruweishid, the last Jordanian village before Iraq, the vicious wind cut through our clothing: we shivered even as the sun burnt our faces.

This is where Raphael, a public health engineer, and other Oxfam International staff are helping build a haven for Iraqi refugees.

"I've built camps for Oxfam in Albania, Gujarat, Sudan, Uzbekistan - all over. But I've never dealt with a place like this," said Raphael. He's Kenyan, and his family live there while he travels the world for Oxfam, putting up camps in emergencies - he knows what he's talking about.

The job is not easy here in the high desert. You have to drill half a kilometre down to find fresh water. The freezing March nights will soon give way to daytime summer temperatures of up to 50 degrees centigrade. The sand storms, as Raphael points out, will mean that even in the heat people will have to live with their tent doors closed tight.

So why's the camp here? The advantages of the place are few, but crucial. It's beside an excellent road - which has enabled the Jordanian government highly efficient engineers to bring in the gear to lay power lines and drill the bore holes for water. The good communications make it easier to ensure security, too. Ruweishid is the last place before that road enters Iraq and proceeds to Baghdad, 625km away - we need to be near the border to bring relief and help as soon as possible to the frightened, weary people everyone expects to see fleeing war in Iraq.

Oxfam's job here is a traditional one that we do well: the design of refugee camps and the provision of water and sanitation is something we've perfected over decades: Raphael and his colleague Manolo Bedram from Ecuador say that even in these extreme conditions they can get the water running for a planned 10,000 refugees in three or four days, tops.

"You're dealing with people who are traumatised and frightened - they deserve care and decency"

It's not as simple as just putting in some pipes and taps. "You're dealing with people who are traumatised and frightened - they deserve care and decency," says Raphael. "When I drew up our plans to consult with the Jordanians, the United Nations and the other organisations* we're working with, I factored in issues like privacy and protection for women and children, proper access to latrines, even how the wind would carry away any smell from the sanitation."

As we talk we see a piece of UNHCR emergency sheeting rise and twist and then blow off across the stony ground - a Jordanian worker frantically chasing it. Raphael laughs. "I'm really impressed with these guys. They're very good workers, very efficient, very professional."

One of the things he's proud of has been the chance to help the Jordanian government staff develop their abilities, showing how you cope with practical problems for refugees' shelter in difficult conditions. When Oxfam's job is done, it leaves behind new skills and new abilities to deal with any new crisis.

This weekend all Manolo and Raphael are waiting for is the arrival of the final plumbers' bits and pieces that will link up their network of pipes to the pumping platform. What everyone here in Jordan is waiting for, of course, is the refugees.

Already, in a transit camp a mile or so away, are the first arrivals from Baghdad, already being welcomed by the staff of the Jordanian Red Crescent. We go down to talk to them.

Most are students from Sudan, who were studying in Baghdad and decided on this, the first morning of the war, to get out and try and get home. They told of us of the fear and uncertainty in the city, and of the long drive across the desert to get to Ruweishid. Did they expect Iraqi people would be following them?

"Noone knows what to do, where is safe, where there is food, where there is fighting. Everybody is lost today," said Suphi, a 23-year-old engineering student.

"An emergency is very good for stretching your brain muscles. We will find solutions - we have before. We will get water for the people even if we have to squeeze it from these stones."

It is this same uncertainty about what the weeks ahead hold that is making the job of Oxfam and the other agencies preparing to deal with refugees so difficult. In the 1991 Gulf War some 1.5 million people fled Iraq, most of them over the Iran border, but several tens of thousands came this way. But then Iraqi people were richer and healthier - more able to travel. Now sixty per cent of them are dependent on food aid, and one million under-five-year-olds are suffering from malnutrition. How do you decide where to flee to when you lack even the basics and perhaps the strength for a journey into the unknown?

So aid agencies are straining their resources to prepare as widely as possible for a frightening range of possibilities. Oxfam has staff and plans ready in Iran and Syria, as well as Jordan. We are ready to act on the northern border with Turkey, if that proves necessary. And as soon as it's possible we will move into Iraq itself.

Raphael may be part of the team that goes into Iraq to decide where Oxfam could be useful. What will he do?

"I'll take my tool box and some rolls of electrical cable. Just to get pumps working and some water flowing in communities that need it. You can do first aid work like that on electrical equipment and get really good results. We'll assess needs and report back - we can get pumps and pipes in from the kit we have stored in Jordan, or we can fly them in from the Oxfam warehouse in Britain."

And if we see more refugees come over this border - more than Ruweishid can cope with?

"An emergency is very good for stretching your brain muscles. We will find solutions - we have before. We will get water for the people even if we have to squeeze it from these stones."

*Oxfam International is working in Jordan with UNHCR, Jordanian Hashemite Charitable Organisation,. Care. Jordanian Red Crescent, Norwegian Church Aid.