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Searching for Water in the World’s Biggest Refugee Crisis

The story behind a short documentary on the lives of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda.

Can Africa’s greatest river provide relief to the world’s biggest refugee crisis? I went to northern Uganda to find out, and encountered a story of desperation and perseverance that opened my eyes and broke my heart. I’ll never look at a glass of water the same way again.

The source of the Nile is in Uganda, where the river crashes out of Lake Victoria and begins its long meandering journey to Egypt. For most of its course in this country, the river’s banks are green; Winston Churchill first called Uganda the “Pearl of Africa” because, compared to Britain’s other colonial holdings, it was a lush agricultural paradise. At Murchison Falls National Park, the river bisects one of the great wildlife strongholds of East Africa, where it supports sprawling populations of hippo, antelope, buffalo, and elephants. But from there, it takes a sharp turn to the north, and the scenery begins to wilt.

Northwestern Uganda features some of the country’s highest temperatures and lowest levels of rainfall. The landscape appears desaturated, the lively greens of lower latitudes replaced by browns and greys. Whereas roadside stalls elsewhere in the country typically overflow with bananas, pineapples, and other fresh produce, here the main offerings are roasted cassava root and goat meat.

Before last summer, this region, where water is chronically in short supply, was one of the least densely populated parts of the country. Today, it is home to the world’s fastest-growing population of refugees.

Just to the north of Uganda, in the Equatoria region of South Sudan, a nightmare of mass murder and rape is unfolding. Since shortly after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has been embroiled in an ethnic civil war, motivated by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Vice President-turned-rebel leader Riek Machar. Equatorians had been spared the worst of the violence, in which civilians were targeted as much as or more than combatants. That changed last summer, when the government began to accuse them of backing the rebels. Since then, widespread, indiscriminate murder, plus impending famine, have forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Refugees line up to register with the Ugandan government at a checkpoint on the border with South Sudan. (Tim McDonnell)
Refugees line up to register with the Ugandan government at a checkpoint on the border with South Sudan. (Tim McDonnell)

Now, nearly 3,000 cross into Uganda every day, totaling more than 800,000. Most arrive on foot, with few possessions, and with little hope to return home anytime soon. Fortunately, Uganda has one of the world’s most liberal refugee policies. Refugees are given plots of land to build homes and try to grow crops, are allowed to leave the refugee settlements freely, and can even work. It’s a far cry from the desperate situations of overcrowded refugee camps like Idomeni in Greece or Dadaab in Kenya.

But that doesn’t mean life in the settlements is easy. Even though the Nile flows only a few kilometers away, water is in extremely short supply. The thousands of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are safe from state-sponsored violence, but have to fight every day for the water to drink, eat, and bathe.

That’s what I found when I visited Palorinya settlement in February and March, to produce a short film about conditions in the settlements, as part of my Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship. That film, Water Is Life, premiered Sunday on NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.

Finding the story

I knew that water would be the focus of my reporting before I left Kampala for the north. Reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made it clear that water access was one of the biggest humanitarian challenges it faced in coping with the refugee crisis. In early February, UNHCR reported that water availability was well below its minimum emergency recommendation of 15 liters per person per day, especially in the newer settlements (the refugees are spread out across a few different settlements, within roughly 1,500 square miles of territory). In Palorinya, where the newest arrivals were all being sent at that time, the water availability estimate was around 12 l/p/d.

12 liters per person per day: That’s just over three gallons, to drink, cook, bathe, wash clothes and dishes, keep the dugout toilet reasonably clean, and any other conceivable use for water. According to the World Health Organization, between one-half and one of those gallons must go to drinking to avoid dangerous dehydration, perhaps more in an extremely hot climate like northern Uganda. By comparison, the average American uses 80-100 gallons per person per day.

The typical crowd around a water tap in Palorinya. (Tim McDonnell)
The typical crowd around a water tap in Palorinya. (Tim McDonnell)

To reach Palorinya, you leave the pavement at Koboko, the last substantial town before the South Sudanese border, and drive for two hours over a brutally bumpy dirt road. Villages are few and far between, but you can tell you’re approaching the settlements from the steady traffic of big semi trucks carrying water and supplies, Land Cruisers emblazoned with UN and other humanitarian agency decals, and giant intercity buses pulled from the Kampala highway to shuttle refugees from the border to their new homes. Just before you reach the settlement, the road crests over a hill, and you can see the Nile flowing along the horizon.

Inside the settlement, the water problem is immediately obvious. A long line of yellow and orange jerrycans snakes behind every water tap, each can representing a family and each line representing a wait of at least a few hours. There are two types of water sources: Boreholes (wells), that use a hand- or diesel-powered pump to draw groundwater; and enormous black tanks that are filled periodically by water trucks. Boreholes are the best long-term solution, but they are expensive and time-consuming to install; each one requires extensive geological surveying and then up to a week of construction work. The water tanks (known as “bowsers” in aid jargon) can be installed the same day refugees arrive in an area, but with so many people clamoring to tap them, they often run dry as soon as they’ve been refilled.

The view from atop Dennis's water truck. Refugees crowd around the direct tap, while a long line of jerrycans wait to be filled. (Tim McDonnell)
The view from atop Dennis’s water truck. Refugees crowd around the direct tap, while a long line of jerrycans wait to be filled. (Tim McDonnell)

To tell the story of this water crisis, I knew that I would need at least two essential characters: A humanitarian expert, and a refugee who had first-hand experience struggling to get water. The former was easy; I worked through the public relations office of UNHCR to make contact with the Lutheran World Federation, the main NGO tasked with facilitating water access in the settlements, and tracked down one of their officers—Charles Masanga—hard at work installing a bowser in an area that had just been opened for new arrivals. He was able to give me the hard facts about water access and explain the process for making more water available. UNHCR also connected me to one of its water truck drivers, Dennis Olyel, who agreed to let me embed with him for his daily rounds later in the week.

Finding a refugee character was more of a challenge. Many South Sudanese speak English, but were understandably wary about speaking to a random white man with a camera. But rather than spend time roving the settlement for a candidate—which could easily turn into a wild goose chase—I decided that the best approach would be to pick one water tank, hang around, make a few friends, and network from there. That method worked: After a couple hours hanging around Tank #1, I ran into a young guy named Edward who spoke good English and was interested in my project. I arranged to hire him as a production assistant—essentially, he made introductions, translated, and watched my back and camera gear in exchange for a daily fee.

As I was walking with Edward from the tank back to his hut, we ran into a woman in a headscarf and black shirt who was outraged by the water situation and eager to tell me about it. I learned that she was Leya Jogo, a widowed grade-school teacher who had arrived in the settlement a few days earlier after a grueling six-month flight for her life in South Sudan. She told me she routinely spends all day, and sometimes all night, waiting in line to fill one jerrycan that she uses to support herself, her elderly mother, and a gaggle of children—two of her own, and a few orphans she picked up along the way. There is never enough water, she said. Even when they get something to drink, they are almost never able to bathe or wash their clothes. She complained that she stank, and was embarrassed to be around her neighbors (not that they were in a better position).

I instantly recognized that Leya was the person I was looking for. But by that time, the afternoon was waning, and it was time to leave the settlement before dark. I agreed to meet Leya back at the same water tank in two days.

Life on the road

That evening, we—myself, my driver, and my partner Siobhán O’Grady, a journalist who was also working in the settlement—drove to the nearest town, Moyo, in search of a place to crash. That turned out to be harder than we anticipated. Moyo is tiny and remote, and contains only a few guesthouses. Because of the refugee crisis, it is flooded every night by aid workers and journalists, and the available beds always sell out in the early afternoon. By the time we arrived, there was practically nothing left, and we spent an exhausting hour being turned away from every inn. We were just ahead of a pair of Doctors Without Borders clinicians, who were caked with mud and sweat after a long day treating refugees’ malaria and respiratory illnesses. I felt guilt about racing them for a room—they spent the day literally saving lives and were surely more deserving of a good night’s rest than us—but there was no alternative.

Eventually, with the help of a drunk but friendly local radio personality we encountered, we found a bed in a tiny guesthouse behind a bar. The room resembled a prison cell, a tiny concrete box with a gross-looking bed, a giant metal door, and nothing else. Inside it was hotter than anything we experienced during the day. I’ll spare you from a description of the shared toilet, which was located in a dark corner behind the building and made the settlements’ dugout latrines look like the Waldorf-Astoria. In retrospect, based on the other clientele and sounds we heard during the night, I’m fairly certain it served as a brothel. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much.

The next day, I choked down some Nescafe and walked into town to meet Dennis, the truck driver. As I climbed into the cab, I could tell it was going to be a good day; Dennis was chatty, saw his work delivering water in deep, moral terms, and clearly enjoyed being on camera. Our first stop was a makeshift water treatment facility on the banks of the Nile, where we filled the truck. Then we drove back to the settlement to look for empty tanks.

The process was straightforward: Dennis received a call from a dispatcher directing him to a tank. When we reached it, he would turn on the truck’s pump and connect a hose to the top of the tank, which took about half an hour to fill. In every case, there was a long line of jerrycans in front of the tank’s tap, that would begin to progress as soon as the tank had some water in it. Then, with whatever water was left in the truck after the tank was filled, he would make the hose available for “direct” delivery. A few refugees, carrying basins and buckets and anything else that can hold water, would push for a spot next to the hose. Because the direct delivery never lasted long, there was always a lot of argument and shoving about whose bucket should get filled. Dennis tried to practice first-come, first-served, but in the chaos he was often at the mercy of whoever was able to grab the hose and point it toward their bucket.

Dennis, at center with hands raised, tries to calm a group of exhausted, frustrated refugees who have gone without water since the day before. (Tim McDonnell)
Dennis, at center with hands raised, tries to calm a group of exhausted, frustrated refugees who have gone without water since the day before. (Tim McDonnell)

After filling the first tank, we refilled the truck and moved to the next. Here, the situation was truly heartbreaking. According to Dennis, because of a miscommunication, this area had not received any water for nearly 24 hours, and was in a place where the ratio of refugees per water tank was exceptionally high. As a result, the line was unbelievably long, hundreds of people baking in the sun with no water. Some were crying, others yelling, fighting, trying to cut in line. As I approached, I was afraid that a riot could break out. They were mostly crowded around another truck that had showed up just before us. The driver was swinging a long stick, trying to form a line and threatening to whack anyone who started a fight. Under the truck I saw a young boy crouched in the dust, trying to catch drips of water running off the chassis. I felt nauseated and nearly broke into tears; it was everything I could do to keep the camera steady and rolling.

By the time we left, it seemed like we had barely made a dent in the line. It was easy to see that it would take dozens more trucks to provide anything like a sufficient level of relief. Try as they might, the water providers were greatly outmatched by the number of refugees.

That night, we had to go through the rigamarole of finding a room in Moyo again. We were determined not to stay in the hellish brothel. Instead, we managed to find a room in a normal-ish hotel on the outskirts of town. The room had a private bathroom, but no running water. Instead, we were provided with a yellow, 20-liter jerrycan, exactly the same as the ones refugees used in the settlement. Suddenly, the UN’s emergency water minimum—15 liters per person per day—was no longer an abstraction. Now it was my turn. As I used the water to shower, I felt deeply humiliated by my own privilege. I used probably one-third of it just to feel reasonably clean. I could not imagine needing to use that same water to prepare my dinner, quench my thirst, wash my sweaty underwear…and share with my family. Every day.

The next morning, I found Leya in her usual place near Tank #1. Perhaps because she knew she was going to be on camera, she was wearing a beautiful, pristine white dress and jacket, embroidered in blue. It was the only nice outfit she was able to bring, and for the life of me I will never understand how she managed to keep it clean in spite of everything.

Leya with some of the orphan children she cares for, at their plot in Palorinya. (Tim McDonnell)
Leya with some of the orphan children she cares for, at their plot in Palorinya. (Tim McDonnell)

After dropping her jerrycan in line, we spent the day together how she usually spends it: Waiting, eating a bit of porridge, sitting, chatting with neighbors, waiting. With no water and few resources to farm, no schools for the children, no jobs, and scarce resources to work on houses or do other labor, on most days there is very little for the refugees to do. I learned that boredom, while not life-threatening, is a legitimate problem for many people.

At one point, Tank #1 ran dry, which extended the wait another few hours. While we waited, I learned more about Leya: That her husband died a few years ago from a stroke; that malaria and other illnesses took four children from her; that over the summer she watched soldiers beat, torture, and murder her neighbors in the street because they were suspected, falsely, of collaborating with the rebels; that she is a respected intellectual in her community and is often called upon to mediate disputes and speak on behalf of her block to the UN; that she is a devout Christian who feels a religious obligation to defend children and educate them; that she suffers from a chronic stomach ailment that makes it painful for her to go without drinking water; that she is disgusted by the South Sudanese government and sees no way to redeem it; that to introduce myself in Kuku, her native language, I would say “Nu longo Tim”; that she would like to return home, but knows she might not be able to for many years.

We left Leya’s can in line around 11 a.m., and didn’t collect it until after 5 p.m. During that time, the water available for her family was the little bit left over from the previous day, plus a few bottles I had brought along from Moyo to share. With a fresh supply of water and the sun beginning to set, the mood in Leya’s plot was giddy, relieved. Another day survived.

The screening

Leya, her neighbors, and a couple visitors watch a screening of Water Is Life. (Tim McDonnell)
Leya, her neighbors, and a couple visitors watch a screening of Water Is Life. (Tim McDonnell)

About a month after I first visited Palorinya, I went back for a day to share an early draft of Water Is Life with Leya and her neighbors. As a journalist, it’s rare to have an opportunity to present your work directly, in person, to the characters in it. The prospect was a bit terrifying: What if Leya hated it? What if I got everything wrong?

I set my laptop up on a plastic chair, and a small crowd gathered around. Leya sat on a mat in the front row. As the film rolled, I could see Leya nodding along with herself, affirming the quotes I had chosen to use. Other people in the audience shook their heads in disbelief at footage of long jerrycan lines, and desperate refugees fighting each other for water; even though the audience experienced these scenes in their own lives every day, it was still disturbing to see them in a film. And several audience members told me the film taught them a lot about where their water comes from, especially the scene at the treatment facility on the riverbank. During the screening, Leya leaned over to whisper to Siobhán. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”

That was a highpoint of my journalism career.

What comes next? The challenge of water for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda is improving slowly, one borehole at a time; on paper at least, the official water availability estimate in Leya’s area is now twice what it was when I first visited (although, to be clear, it’s still less than six gallons per person per day). But in a place like northern Uganda, for a community that is approaching one million people, boreholes will never be sufficient. The real solution must come from diplomacy, not engineering: South Sudan must find peace, so that people like Leya are never forced from their homes in the first place.

After it passes Palorinya, the next major landmark on the Nile’s northward journey is Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Perhaps, after it fills the refugees’ jerrycans, the river can carry a plea for relief to President Kiir. If he listens, perhaps Leya can quench her thirst for good.

Tim McDonnell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow reporting on climate change impacts to food security in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. Previously he was a staff reporter for Mother Jones magazine in New York. He is currently based in Lagos. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram