Water in the Humanitarian Response

Humanitarian shelters for Venezuelan immigrants in Roraima in accordance with the international standards of WASH of the Sphere Handbook

When we talk about refugee camps, the tendency is to think of places in Africa or the Middle East, with thousands of people living in subhuman conditions, subject to all kinds of violence that puts their life in danger, eating poorly, living in makeshift housing, without adequate sewage treatment, or having to walk long distances to access water.

The image is not based on nothing, because truly, millions of people in the world live in these conditions. Despite being far from the ideal situation, the humanitarian response to the Venezuelan migratory crisis in Brazil breaks up this scenario quite a bit. In the shelters of Operation Welcome, a humanitarian taskforce coordinated by the Brazilian government, through the Armed Forces, together with UN agencies and more than 100 civil society organizations, the reality of immigrants and refugees is much more moderate – without underestimating all the suffering they go through and endure from a forced migration.

The spaces of the shelters are safe from the outside environment, have a reception office and a security guard; the refugees receive food specially prepared for them, in lunchboxes, three times a day; in spite of being improvised spaces, often in sports gyms, each family has a private space to store their belongings; and because it is a settlement in an urban setting, in addition to providing the possibility for a socio-economic insertion, a part of the issue of water supply and sanitation is automatically resolved.

The great challenge is to transform these improvised spaces – there are more than 10 humanitarian shelters in the state – into places that promote the restoration of human dignity and encourage the recipients to rebuild their lives. In this sense, here the providential standardization contained in the Sphere Handbook comes in, of which the Fraternity – International Humanitarian Federation (FIHF) is a focal point in Brazil. The Handbook establishes the minimum parameters for a humanitarian response, and through this, it is possible to measure whether the actions implemented are satisfactory for the ongoing response phase, or if they need improvement to reach a minimum standard.

WASH – Supply of Water, Sanitation and the Promoting of Hygiene

The first of the technical chapters of the Sphere Handbook is about the minimum standards for the Supply of Water, Sanitation and the Promoting of Hygiene – WASH, English acronym. This is because: “The people affected by a crisis are more susceptible to illnesses and death as a result of these, especially diarrheal and infectious diseases. Such illnesses are intimately related to inadequate sanitation and water supply and poor hygiene.” (The Sphere Handbook, p. 92) 96)

An extremely relevant subject at any time, it becomes an absolute priority in times of the covid-19 pandemic. “The main objective of WASH programs in humanitarian responses is to reduce risks to public health, creating barriers to the main pathways of human infection by pathogens. Among the main activities of these programs are:

In spite of the fact that settlements in urban settings facilitate access to drinking water and sanitation, this does not mean that a large commitment of energy is not necessary so that the rights of immigrants and refugees living in the shelters can be guaranteed. As the numbers express, there are almost two thousand people just in the five indigenous shelters managed by the Humanitarian Fraternity (FIHF) in Roraima; the infrastructure is also significant, and requires full-time maintenance.

All the shelters have drinking fountains with water filters, access points to potable water for cooking and cleaning, laundries, restrooms arranged by gender, and gray and black water collection systems. The effort to improve structures, with a goal of adapting them to international humanitarian standards, is constant. As an example, in some shelters, the bathrooms are adapted containers, and in others, they were built of masonry to better serve the population. All the shelters had laundries built, and with the appearance of the covid-19, received installations for hand-washing at the entrance. They were also equipped with pressure washers for cleaning community environments, among other equipment and materials.

Emergencies within the emergency response

Since it is about responding to an emergency, emergencies always appear. Like in the case of the Janokoida Shelter, where the hydraulic pump burned out that lifts water from an underground cistern, which receives water from the supply company, to the local distribution box, which sits on top of a metal structure specially built by Operation Welcome to adapt the space for the shelter. During the period necessary to repair the pump, the Armed Forces took charge of re-supplying the water tank daily with a water truck, thus providing for immediate needs.

Periodic maintenance

In addition to emergencies, there is also periodic maintenance. This is the case with the drinking fountain filters, for example, which have a specific expiration date and need to be changed frequently. Besides the replacements, the drinking fountains are cleaned regularly, which is the responsibility of the ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) team, which is also active in the shelters.

Adjustment to the cultural traits of each ethnic group

Maria del Carmen, 36 years old, a native of the E’ñepa tribe, has been in Brazil three months, and two months in the Jardim Floresta Shelter. She says that there is always water, “every day, for bathing, for washing, cleaning, there always is; I have had no problems with the water; also for cooking, to bathe the children…, the one with the filter, that we use for drinking.” She also affirms that the place for the water is quite close to where she lives, as well as the one with water filters.

The Jardim Floresta Shelter has two Venezuelan ethnic groups present; besides the E’ñepa, in smaller numbers, there is also the Warao. To accommodate the customs and culture of each ethnic group, and aiming at a peaceful coexistence between them, the shelter has been modified so that each of them has their own community space with respect to WASH. The first step was the division of the bathrooms, which in addition to being organized by gender, are also assigned to each ethnic group. A water filter was installed near the area where the E’ñepa are, thus facilitating access. The building of a space specifically for them to wash clothes and utensils is also being implemented, in the vicinity of their living quarters.

Working for life

“Illnesses related to water, sanitation and hygiene in humanitarian crises are the cause of significant diseases and of deaths that could be avoided” (The Sphere Handbook, p. 96) 101)

Daniel, 37 years old, works for the Humanitarian Fraternity (FIHF) as coordinator of the infrastructure and WASH. He is Cuban, trained as a civil engineer in his country, and managed to have his diploma revalidated in Brazil, where he has lived since 2017. The following is his story:

“My story is the same as those of the refugees I work with. I am also an immigrant, a refugee. In spite of the fact that for Cubans it is difficult, a little more than a month ago I was notified that I had been accepted as a refugee here in Brazil.”

“The objective of my work as coordinator of infrastructure and WASH is the preventative assessment of structures. In the hydraulic part, there is the water supply and the sewage part as well as the rain water drainage. The job is to detect the problem and seek a solution. I, as a civil engineer, often have the solution at hand; I can often do it myself, with the help of a refugee who has knowledge of the field; but other times, the solution to the problem is not in our hands, and needs to be sought through some partnership.”

“In the structure of WASH, the Humanitarian Fraternity (FIHF) does not work on its own; it works together with other entities. The water supply part is with the task force of the Armed Forces, which bridges the gap with the water company; the sanitation and hygiene part is reinforced with Adra and Unicef.”

On the WASH side, as an administrator, if I know there is a problem, I have to ensure that the basic conditions are maintained. It is the right of the people in the shelter to have drinking water, the bathrooms must be in a condition to use, a hand-washing sink at the entrance of the shelter and in the dining area.”

“From a personal point of view, I really feel I am privileged, because I experienced this my own self – as I commented before, I am also an immigrant and refugee. I almost feel blessed: first, because of working for the Humanitarian Fraternity (FIHF), which is a non-governmental non-profit organization; second, because I can help them, because I see myself in their place…. I had the luck of getting work, you see? But if I hadn’t, I would be living in a shelter like this, and for me, it would be wonderful if somebody could help me.”

“I worked for the Humanitarian Fraternity (FIHF)as an assistant for community participation, then I was a distribution officer, and then a registration officer; and now, thank God, my job has to do with my training as a civil engineer. I feel good; and grateful, very much so!”