Delivering Water and Advancing Social Justice for Refugees and Host Communities in Uganda

This February we join the United Nations in recognizing the “World Day of Social Justice,” drawing attention to social justice as an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. 

Engineers Without Borders USA is proud to contribute to social justice through engineering projects that remove barriers, advance human rights, and allow people to thrive. 

We are highlighting our work ensuring that both refugees and host communities in northern Uganda have equitable access to a reliable supply of clean drinking water. Our technical expertise, training manuals, and programs will ensure a long-lasting, sustainable impact on the development of water supply and contribute to the peaceful coexistence among communities.

In 2019 EWB-USA opened an office in Uganda to support our ongoing programs in the country and to provide engineering and technical expertise where it is currently unavailable. 

Photo credit: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Water is scarce in northern Uganda. Ugandans were already suffering from water shortages well before the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from South Sudan, placed additional pressure on an already stretched resource.

According to the State of the World’s Water 2018, the majority of Ugandans (60%) do not have access to clean drinking water and more than 23 million have more than a 30-minute walk, several times a day, to gather water for themselves and their families. Often this water is dirty, contaminated, and unsafe to use. Waterborne diseases and death continue to be a worldwide burden in both developed and developing countries. 

Engineers Without Borders USA, working in partnership with OXFAM and in consortium with Community Empowerment for Rural Development and African Women and Youth Action for Development is improving access to clean drinking water for refugees in three refugee settlements as well as for their host communities. The consortium is also implementing awareness campaigns on hygiene to reduce the spread of sickness. A lack of adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities can devastate the health and survival of refugees and host communities.

The Challenge of Providing Water

The continually growing number of people living in the area combined with the heat in Uganda’s dry northern region means providing refugees with clean drinking water is an enormous challenge. In a refugee settlement, one of the first challenges is getting enough water – at least 20 litres a day per person for drinking, cooking, washing, and cleaning. 

As water supply becomes overstretched and is focused on reaching the refugee populations while the host communities also suffer from lack of water, tensions rise amongst the communities. To proactively address potential conflict, the program serves both refugee and host communities. Working in the settlements of Kyaka II, Imvepi and Rhino, the consortium is providing communities with a sustainable and reliable water supply and enhancing the capacities of local government in the design, operation, and maintenance of the systems installed. 

During 2016 more than a million South Sundanese fled to Uganda as fighting broke out. Hundreds of water systems were installed over a short period of time to accommodate this growing population. However, as the situation settles, the area is entering into a development phase where water supply systems require coordination and most importantly, trained operators and technicians able to maintain the systems.

Mostly solar and solar-hybrid, the systems are utilizing the endless power of the sun, but create a challenge for the operators and technicians trying to maintain the systems using this fairly new technology. Training in these areas is desperately needed and EWB-USA, through this program, has come to fill this gap. 

EWB-USA is providing technical expertise for the project including supporting the design, implementation, operation, and maintenance of the solar-powered pumping systems already in place and those that will be installed by Oxfam.

EWB USA’s engineering contributions include:

  • Installing solar-powered water system design for new systems being installed;
  • Providing critical recommendations for improving and/or extending existing systems to reach optimum operating condition and provide water to additional populations, schools, and health facilities;
  • Designing standards and Operation and Maintenance manuals for both operators and technicians;
  • And providing critical training in solar-powered water system design, performance testing, diagnostics, troubleshooting, and operation and maintenance. 

Through the training support EWB has provided through this program, operators and technicians are now better positioned to maintain these systems. There are fewer breakdowns and the systems are fully functional, providing reliable clean water to the refugees and host population the program serves. 

“When we work with our partners, bringing together our areas of strength, we’re able to be exponentially more effective,” says Zoe.

EWB-USA will continue our efforts to build the capacity of the engineering communities and local governments to design, operate and maintain these systems so that water is always flowing for the communities we serve. The pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of our global mission promoting development and human dignity and providing clean water for the 118,000 refugees and host communities in our current project area is a huge step in securing a better, more secure future.

About the Author
Engineers Without Borders USA builds a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.