Soon, Dutch expertise will save tens of tons of refugees in Bentiu, South Sudan, from having to wade through ankle-high mud. In the rainy season their camp becomes a quagmire, causing already low living standards to worsen. Following trade and development minister Lilianne Ploumen’s visit to South Sudan last autumn, a team of hydraulic engineers – led by the consultancy firm Grontmij – has drawn up a plan to improve the situation. ‘What we’re doing in Bentiu is an excellent example of the added value of Dutch knowledge and expertise,’ said Ms Ploumen. ‘Most important of course, is what we’re doing to give the refugees better places to live. At the same time, we’re highlighting the major role Dutch businesses and knowledge institutions can play in emergency aid provision.’
South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013, creating a huge flood of refugees, both within South Sudan and into neighbouring countries. Violence has driven two million people from their homes, including people fleeing heavy shelling of the northern town of Bentiu. Many of its inhabitants have sought protection in the low-lying UN compound nearby, despite it being ill-equipped to receive refugees. In the rainy season it becomes an enormous quagmire, flooding the already scarce facilities and tents, and engulfing them in mud.
More than 50,000 people are forced to live in this 70-hectare swamp. In the 2014 rainy season the entire camp flooded, including the toilets, schools and hospital. ‘Despite the efforts of aid workers, UN staff and the refugees themselves to make the best of the situation, conditions were terrible,’ said Ms Ploumen. ‘That’s why we sent a water expert to Bentiu to assess short- and long-term needs.’
The result is a new plan to renovate the existing camp and add an extension. To ensure adequate drainage, a dike will encircle the camp, ditches and canals will be dug and large-scale pumps will be installed. Currently, every possible effort is being made to finish land reclamation efforts before the rainy season begins in May or June. It is a project of immense proportions, in a difficult location, in the middle of a war zone. The total cost amounts to some USD 20 million, with USD 5.4 million provided by the Netherlands. Other financial backers include the UN, the EU and Switzerland.
Dutch efforts focus on drawing up the technical plan and supervising its implementation. Most of the financial contribution will be used to cover the costs of installing the ditches, canals and pumps. The project aims keep all the displaced persons at the camp – whose numbers continue to increase – and aid workers dry in the 2015 rainy season. ‘This is not just about preventing flooding,’ said the minister. ‘It’s also about reducing the risk of illnesses like diarrhoea and cholera. Living conditions will still be tough, but they will be improved.’