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close this bookWater and Sanitation in Emergencies - Good Practice Review 1 (ODI, 1994, 120 p.)
close this folder3. The Operating Environment: General Considerations
View the document(introduction...)
View the document3.1 The political context
View the document3.2 Conflict areas
View the document3.3 Technological considerations
View the document3.4 Climatic considerations
View the document3.5 Common characteristics of displaced and resident populations
View the document3.6 Social and economic considerations
View the document3.7 Management considerations

3.1 The political context

The political realities within a country or region are probably the most significant external influence on an emergency programme. They are also the one aspect over which agencies can have virtually no influence, if they are to avoid jeopardising their ability to continue working in the country.

Assuming that political circumstances make it possible for refugees to enter a country or for displaced people to remain within it, political considerations can frequently influence other aspects of an emergency. Take the issue of camp location. Where a camp is to be sited can be an intensely sensitive political issue. Governments may prefer to keep refugees close to their borders and in difficult circumstances in order to discourage a lengthy stay; tribal and ethnic borders frequently differ from geographical borders and it may therefore be inappropriate for a government to allow people from neighbouring countries to settle in a camp within an area that is dominated by opposing political opinions; a government may be afraid of ethnically incited conflict spilling over into its own territory. The situation in Burundi in early 1994, where both Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi refugees and Burundian Hutu and Tutsi returnees were settled in camps amongst sometimes hostile displaced and resident populations, is an example of this; the potential for violence is enormous. Field workers should be aware that in certain circumstances, governments may have their own motives for inducing violence.

The combination of ethnic, national and international politics had a great influence on the fortunes of Somali refugees fleeing to Ethiopia in 1988. Hartisheik camp was sited where it was, because it was ethnically difficult to cross the nearby clan boundaries, and the Ogaden desert had recently been the battleground between Ethiopia and Somalia. The Horn of Africa was also strategically important during the Cold War; Soviet influence was strong in Ethiopia and US influence in Somalia. This is why water had to be tankered in from 75km away.

Limiting access to water sources can also be used for political ends. As is discussed in Section 4.1, supplying water can sometimes justify an inappropriate site; similarly the type of infrastructure constructed in a camp may be influenced by political considerations. If large-scale investment has been put into constructing a water system at one site, it makes it more difficult for the government to move a refugee camp to a less appropriate one. Agencies involved in the emergency provision of water need to be fully aware of the implications of their decisions. Water is vital in these situations and because all sides need it, it can become a very powerful bargaining tool. This has to be recognised, and agencies need to make decisions with an eye to their future relevance both in terms of provision of the service and from a political standpoint.

Political influence can be brought to bear on a water and sanitation programme by the role local authorities decide to adopt. Whilst sometimes displaying a major commitment to an emergency programme, various local authorities can also feel a widely differing degree of responsibility for it, particularly where they take over responsibility for its co-ordination. The level of commitment can differ greatly from that of the agency, and this may have a direct impact on a water and sanitation programme. For example, the speed with which a local authority conducts negotiations over the land for pipelines or treatment sites once it has agreed to do so, can have a significant impact on the operation's progress.

Agencies have to ensure that their legal responsibilities are met when they are working in emergencies. Legal restrictions can limit their options in a number of sectors. For example, when an agency wanted to form a temporary dam during the dry season across the low flowing River Atbara in East Sudan, it had to obtain permission from the authorities, because interruption to the flow of water was restricted as the Atbara was a main tributary of the Nile.

Political circumstances can make it very difficult for people to settle for any length of time in one camp or area. This raises the question of how to provide water to a transient population. One way is as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does, namely to use mobile water treatment units, which can be towed or mounted on the back of trucks or pickups. They are self-contained treatment plants and can produce good quality water in varying quantities depending upon their capacity and the quality of the raw water. The ICRC in Geneva can be contacted for information about its field experience.