Three times a day, Rebecca Simon gathers up her jerry cans and makes the 1.5-kilometre trek from Sudan’s Khor Al Waral refugee settlement to the White Nile River.

The 45-year-old widow was forced to flee her home in South Sudan in 2014 after fighting broke out in her village. Along with many of her neighbours, Rebecca and her children fled north to Sudan, where they found refuge.

Although Rebecca and her children have escaped the violence of civil war, they are now facing another deadly enemy: dirty water.

In a country already suffering from a shortage of clean water, the influx of refugees has put extreme pressure on Sudan’s water resources.

The daily water ration in Khor Al Waral settlement has dropped to just 7.5 litres per person, per day for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene – the same amount of water used in a single toilet flush here in Australia.

The clean water crisis in the settlement means that refugees like Rebecca have no choice but to make the long walk to the White Nile River to fetch water. Despite being heavily polluted, refugees are desperate for water.

“I have to go every day to fetch water from the Nile, and drink this water even though it has a bad smell,” says Rebecca. “My six-year-old boy got sick with strong stomach pains.”

A refugee boy is treated for acute watery diarrhoea, a waterborne disease that is common in Sudan and can be life-threatening in young children. © UNHCR/A. Nasrullah

In South Sudan, Rebecca worked as a nurse specialising in child nutrition. She understands the dangers of dirty water, but on days when the settlement’s taps run dry, there are no other options.

While UNHCR fieldworkers encourage families to boil water sourced from the river or water vendors, the scarcity of firewood and other fuel sources means this is not always possible. Families tend to reserve the fuel they do have for cooking their meals.

Rebecca says that one of the hardest things about not having enough water is attending to her personal hygiene, and keeping her children clean. The current daily ration means the family of eight shares one bucket of water to wash.

The monsoon season from June to early October brings further challenges. With one latrine for every 90 refugees, sewage overflow and open defecation are inevitable.

Torrential rains create streams of contaminated water that end up in the White Nile River. Waterborne diseases like acute watery diarrhoea and cholera spread with alarming efficiency in these conditions.

UNHCR is on the ground in Sudan working to provide refugees with clean drinking water and proper sanitation, but has just 13% of the funding needed for the crisis response in Sudan.

UNHCR is on the ground in Sudan responding to the water crisis, but more help is urgently needed.

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