Malian women who have come to Niger as refugees, attend a meeting in Tiguizefane, Abala district, Niger. Photo by Jean-Philippe Debus /CRS

By Helen Blakesley and Caritas Internationalis staff

American Caritas member Catholic Relief Services, Caritas Niger (SECADEV) and its partners are mobilising emergency water, hygiene and sanitation facilities to meet the urgent needs of thousands of Malian refugees in neighbouring Niger.

Fighting in northern Mali between the army and a rebel group has forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes. Nearly half have stayed in Mali, and the others have crossed borders seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

According to the United Nations, around 25,000 people have crossed into Niger since the end of January—two-thirds of them Malian refugees and a third, Nigeriens. An estimated 500 people are arriving every day.

Most of the refugees are living in open-air shelters made of blankets stretched over sticks. They face extreme temperatures—the heat of the day and then cold at night—in the Sahelien desert zone.

Many came on foot, leaving behind most of their belongings. Some refugees say that they lost contact with their older children as they fled. They don’t know where they are and have no way of contacting them.

What makes the situation even more difficult is that the refugees are seeking help from communities already weakened by a severe food crisis affecting large areas of the Sahel region after poor rains and bad harvests last year.

Ali Aboulaye, deputy country representative with CRS Niger said, “Local people in the villages near the border are already in a really precarious situation. They’re sharing what they have, but that can’t last forever. There are also major problems accessing clean water, toilet and washing facilities with such an influx of people. It’s disastrous.”

Trench latrines being built, to become short-term toilets for the Malian refugees. Photo by Jean-Philippe Debus /CRS

CRS and Caritas Niger are making it a priority to bring water, sanitation and hygiene assistance to these vulnerable people so they will have clean water to drink, and a place to wash and go to the toilet in safe and dignified conditions.

Without this support, the risk of disease is high. Some refugees are already suffering from diarrhoea and other diseases. The illnesses flourish in places where hygiene is poor.

One such place is the village of Sinégodar, in the Tillabéri region, about 6 miles from the Mali border, where two-thirds of Niger’s Mali refugees have settled. The population has quadrupled, from fewer than 2,000 to more than 8,000 in the last month.

“The village only has two wells and a water-pumped trough where the animals usually drink,” Abdoulaye explains. “The women can wait up to 2 hours to get water, and it’s not even clean. Where the refugees are, there are no latrines, no showers, no system for getting rid of waste. Several refugees have told me that they haven’t washed since they arrived.”

To improve water and sanitation in the village, CRS with Caritas Niger, is providing fuel for the water-pumping station, extending water pipes closer to the refugees and renovating wells to improve the water quality.

And, about 40 miles to the southeast in the district of Abala, where many villages are sheltering refugees, CRS is leading more activities, including trucking in badly needed water. CRS also is providing fuel to keep water pumps running, delivering water storage tanks, and building latrines, showers and washing stations to give refugees their privacy back. They are also putting a garbage disposal plan into place and have organized people to help with hygiene promotion activities. CRS plans to distribute around 2,000 hygiene kits that include buckets, soap and storage jugs to families.

Women and girls from Miel, Abala district, one of the communities that is helping to support Malian refugees. Photo by Jean-Philippe Debus /CRS

These emergency measures will go hand in hand with longer-term projects already underway and that CRS is stepping up in the Tillabéri region and elsewhere in Niger. Projects include dry-season gardening using irrigation techniques or cash-for-work programs to improve the land and build wells. The idea is to meet immediate needs and help people cope with the ongoing crisis.

Abdoulaye knows that it’s essential to stand in solidarity with these brothers and sisters.

“Talking with the refugees, you can feel their bewilderment—they never imagined this could happen to them,” he says. “It’s humbling to see people who don’t even have the minimum to live with dignity, who don’t know what their future holds. When I look in their eyes, I know they’re searching for hope, for someone to help them.”

Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal. This article appeared without Caritas Internationalis edits first here