It’s no secret that there is a refugee crisis. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) stated that as of January 2019, 70.8 million people were refugees. To put that into perspective, one in every eight persons is either in transit, seeking asylum or living in camps. Roughly 2.6 million reside in managed camps, and this has created an all-new challenge: a refugee water crisis.
UNHCR estimates that more than half of the world’s refugee camps do not have enough water to fulfill the recommended 20 liters per person per day. There are a number of health risks associated with lack of water. To address them, WASH has intervened with several programs.
9 Facts About the Refugee Water Crisis
- Global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) is a CDC program designed to improve access to healthy water, sanitation practices and hygiene. Ultimately, they strive for long-term solutions that will reduce poverty and improve the health and socio-economic development of everyone. WASH has impacted countless refugee camps and bettered the water crisis for many.
- Nyamithuthu Refugee Camp in Malawi received hygiene education training and successfully implemented the “improved bucket” initiative. Water does not have to be contaminated from its source to pose a threat to close-corridor inhabitants. Infection can spread from touching and storing water in improperly sanitized containers. To control any possible spread of disease, WASH provided 20-liter water buckets with constraining lids and water spouts to limit secondhand contamination.
- Though formal camps typically have better WASH services, they are not always up to ‘safely managed’ standards. These standards include the limitation of shared facilities and on-premise water sources with water sources less than 200 meters (656 feet) away. For example, there are 11 refugee camps managed in Uganda and only 43 percent of the inhabitants have access to water less than 200 meters away. The physical burden of carrying 80 liters of water from a well that far uses one-sixth of rationed calories for the day.
- The refugee water crisis inhibits proper sanitation practices, which is the first defense against communicable diseases. Roughly 30 percent of managed camps have inadequate waste disposal. Latrines shared between three or more families increase the risk for cholera outbreaks which are transmitted through fecal-oral contact. Several refugee camps in Bangladesh with sanitation facilities were three times less likely to have cholera outbreaks than camps without them.
- Undocumented refugees and migrants in transit have particular difficulty in finding basic water and sanitation services. They risk detection by authorities and tend to revert to unsafe and often dangerous methods to obtain water. For example, undocumented refugees on the French-Italian border use the river as a water source, toilet and place to cook in order to avoid detection by the Red Cross.
- Low-income and undocumented refugees are also more likely to live in informal urban areas with non-standardized infrastructures. On the US/Mexico border, Matamoros, Mexico, has an estimated 50,000 migrants settled in an unofficial refugee camp. Sources reveal there are less than 10 portable toilets, no running water and only two wooden showers located in the woods. Refugees use river water to bathe, cook, drink and clean laundry. The majority of the provisions (water and food parcels) are given through religious organizations, immigration activists and individual donors.
- The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) addressed this humanitarian crisis through the Protocol for the Protection of Migrant Children. The Protocol ensures all necessary actions are taken to protect the rights of migrant children including their access to water.
- The true nature of the refugee water crisis is underrepresented, leaving water provisions inadequately rationed. WASH services are estimated based on census and survey data, excluding refugees in transit or informal settings. Undocumented refugees have no chance of consideration with this form of data collection, meaning that the crisis is more serious than the data indicates.
- The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development details several plausible and lasting solutions to address and end the water crisis, specifically initiating and protecting policies in support of universal and inclusive water services. It also includes recommendations for governments and international agencies to strengthen water governance in correlation with migration.
Access to water is a human right protected under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The refugee water crisis threatens the lives of every migrant already running for their lives. Continued efforts from WASH, government agencies and humanitarian organizations are crucial to ending this crisis.
– Marissa Taylor