ERBIL, IRAQ — Tents and cinderblock homes rise from the dusty fields here in northern Iraq. Children race bikes and play soccer in the streets and alleys between them, and men sip tea and shell sunflower seeds with their teeth. Amid faint strains of music, shopkeepers hawk everything from SIM cards to falafel and haircuts.
Welcome to the micro-city of Kawergosk refugee camp, where more than 10,000 Syrian men, women and children now make their home. When families began arriving here in 2013, cramped living conditions and a dearth of clean water led to debilitating waterborne illness and a formidable public health challenge.
That’s when Relief International stepped in.
“Before RI came here, we were not drinking the water,” says Zahra Omer Hussein, one of the camp’s early arrivals. “Now we can drink the water because RI has done a good job making it safe for us.”
With support from UNICEF, Relief International created a water-monitoring program for Kawergosk and three other camps in Erbil. Paired with RI’s acclaimed Minor Fixing program — which has trained more than 200 local residents in basic plumbing — these efforts have enhanced people’s quality of life and have reduced the incidence of diarrhea and waterborne illness to almost zero.
Camp residents also gain valuable skills from the programs. And a sense of pride in their communities. As a trained RI water tester, Rethwan Haji Qasm visits homes, schools, stores and restaurants five days a week. Alongside a partner, he records levels of particulate matter, which can cloud water, and unwanted chemicals such as excess chlorine. They look for dissolved solids that can cause illness or make the water taste unpleasant. They also coordinate with the camp’s health care center and examine records for diarrhea and other illnesses associated with poor water quality.
“In this way we can see that we are keeping the quality of the water consistent,” Qasm says. “We can see if it gets worse or better.”
Residents at all four camps also play a large role in keeping the communities’ limited water supply clean and flowing. In Basmira camp, RI supported students who created a video demonstrating how to maintain personal hygiene and conserve water.
On a brisk, sunny day, students showcased their knowledge of hygiene and water conservation at a festival and art exhbit on theme of clean water and efficient consumption.
“We must save the water,” says 7th grader Nermine Alwan, who had drawn a woman wasting water. “We must make people more aware.”