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A water expert in the Sudanese desert

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A short but intense rainy season makes life harder in refugee camps in Sudan. The camps are at risk of flooding. Ivar Lokhorst works for water management company Nelen & Schuurmans. Via the Dutch Surge Support facility (DSS water), he helped prevent flooding in the refugee camps. His work in Sudan was a big adventure.

You worked in refugee camps in Sudan. How did the refugees end up there?

“Last November, a war started in northern Ethiopia between the Tigray region and the national government. Large numbers of refugees moved to Sudan. More than 60,000 people from Tigray have crossed the border since November. They live in 2 camps and 2 reception facilities in Sudan. Gedaref is the main city between the 2 camps. Several NGOs and the United Nations (UN) are already present there.”

Both refugee camps are in the middle of the desert. Why does a place like that need help from a water expert?

“The desert might seem like a strange place for a water expert who knows a lot about floods. But Sudan has a short, very intense rainy season. Once it starts raining here, the camps are at serious risk of flooding. When I arrived, I only had 4 months until the rainy season started. I had to work quickly to make plans and have them carried out.”

What approach did you take?

“We worked with colleagues from the UN, remote support from the Netherlands and the NGOs in the area. Together, we looked for the best possible solutions for the upcoming rainy season. It is a technical issue. How much water can we expect and where? How can we remove this water? But it is also a planning issue. Is there anywhere we can move the tents to? Will the landowner give us permission? Are there organisations that can set up specific measures in time?”

What challenges did you experience during the work?

“I found it difficult to get used to the working conditions. I am not used to working outside when it is 45 degrees Celsius. Also, the camps are less than 40 kilometres from the conflict zone. That means you need certain security measures in the camps. There are security briefings every day. The briefings tell everyone what the risks are and how to deal with them. Aid workers stay in contact by radio so that the control rooms knows where they are at all times.”

How is this different from the work you normally do?

“The situation here is completely different from the desk job I am used to. In the Netherlands, I use datasets, data science techniques and models to solve problems. Here, I roll up my sleeves and jump into ditches to take profile measurements. I also had to get used to working long hours; more than 12 hours a day was normal.”

Can you give us an idea of how the project went?

“After 2.5 months, we were finished with the drainage designs and setting priorities. Then we hired the contractors. NGOs and the people from Tigray share responsibility for carrying out the local measures. We were doing well until I tested positive for COVID-19. I had to quarantine for 2 weeks. That made me miss the start of the work activities by one day.”

“The support did not end when I left Sudan. In the months after that, experts and the remote support team supervised the measures from a distance. They also provided support where needed.”

“At this point, we have carried out about 70% of all the measures. Meanwhile, the seasonal rains have already started. Luckily, there has been no extremely heavy rainfall so far. We will test the measures in practice soon. Hopefully, we will see that my efforts have made life a little easier for the people from Tigray.”

What did you learn from this experience?

“When I look back at the whole experience, I am grateful for this opportunity. It was a step into the unknown. Good material and mental support from both the Netherlands and the UN was essential. In particular, the support from Dutch experts helped me feel confident in areas I sometimes did not know enough about.”

“I will never forget the contact with the refugees, the heart-breaking stories, but also their happiness at finding a safe place to stay. The feeling within the UN that there is no problem we cannot solve together was also fantastic. I will certainly continue to use the things I learned in Sudan. For example, I now plan my approach to problems more and think about multiple solutions.”

“I am back in the Netherlands now, and my workdays are the same as before. I work at a desk instead of in a ditch.”

DSS in Sudan and Ethiopia

There is a strong need for expertise in the region between Sudan and Ethiopia. Ivar is not the only expert that has spent time in the region. Many other DSS experts in WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), energy and mental health care are working there as well. Find out more about them.

Would you like to use your knowledge to help out in disaster areas?

Are you an expert in a particular field? Would you like to help in water-related emergencies in other countries? DSS water is always looking for new experts. Learn more about DSS water and sign up to be one of our experts. Would you like to contribute to MHPSS (mental health and psychosocial support)? Read more on the DSS MHPSS page.

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