A life-sustaining water system originally installed by the UN refugee agency in Ethiopia will live on after Somali refugees leave.

Over the years, Somali refugees in eastern Ethiopia have gradually returned to their homeland, but a life-sustaining water system originally installed by the UN refugee agency will remain behind to ease the lives of both the last refugees and the local communities.

"Our life as refugees has obviously been beset with a multitude of challenges but none was so difficult as the problem of securing full access to safe drinking water, " says 37-year-old Leila Oumer, a Somali mother of nine who has been in Kebribeyah camp since 1996.

"I believe the days of our water-related woes are over and all we must do to sustain this is guard the system and the water points against abuse and misuse of any sort," says the member of the Refugee Committee, which is in charge of overseeing the functioning of the water points.

The impetus for the project originally was the vast numbers of Somalis who had fled war in their own country. In the early 1990s, some 628,000 Somali refugees were in eight camps in eastern Ethiopia, including Kebribeyah and the nearby camp of Hartisheik, which hosted a staggering 250,000 people.

Supplying water by tanker was difficult and expensive for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), so the refugee agency decided to install a pipeline to the well-watered Jarar Valley, [13 miles] from Kebribeyah.

"Initially the project was meant to benefit a total of 173,367 people composed of Somali refugees in Kebribeyah and Hartisheik camps, the local communities in both towns, the communities of the valley and people living along the route of the pipeline, not to mention the big number of cattle and camels that are fed in the valley," says Fernando Protti Alvarado, UNHCR's deputy representative.

The complex work of boring holes in the valley, connecting the wells and building the pipeline cost some US$4 million and was not completed until just over two years ago.

By then, the UNHCR repatriation operations that began in 1997 had led to the closure of all the camps except Kebribeyah. But more than 15,000 Somali refugees remain, unable to join their countrymen in returning because of the continuing political chaos of Somalia.

"Before UNHCR installed these water points in the camp, we used to get much less water per day and what we used to get from the camp reservoir was of poor quality," says Mohammed Alijama, a Somali refugee who still is unable to return home because his area still is dangerous.

"Full-time guards have been assigned and the Refugee Committee, of which I am a member, does a regular oversight of the way things are handled by other refugees," he says.

Protection of the pipeline matters to more than just the Somali refugees. The 24 water points - seven in the camp and 17 in the town - benefit 38,909 people, most of them Ethiopians who have generously hosted the refugees during the past two decades. In addition, five water points and cattle troughs have been installed along the pipeline route.

"Before UNHCR gave us these precious water points, which pour clean and safe water, we in Kebribeyah had faced a very serious shortage of water," says Fatima Beshir, a local resident of Kebribeyah. "Whatever little we used to get from dirty ponds had very dire health consequences. We used to travel scores of [miles] to Jarar Valley and Fafen, which is even farther away, to fetch water."

There are concerns for the long-term future of the water system. UNHCR says the pumps and other equipment already are aging, causing occasional interruptions of service while spare parts are found. Pumping capacity is just 50 percent of the theoretical capacity of the wells.

"To overcome these and other problems UNHCR will continue to support the region and the Kebribeyah werda [local administration] in building their managerial capacity to take over and manage the scheme," says Protti. "There also is a need for further discussions and negotiations and hard work to get a proper and sustainable management system in place.

"Failure in this endeavor will have a serious impact on the overall refugee assistance at Kebribeyah camp, and the local communities who benefit from the scheme," says the UNHCR official. ND