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When frustration becomes inspiration

How do you solve a problem like 80,000 people and no toilets?

This was the challenge Red Cross faced when fighting broke out between rival ethnic groups in South Sudan in December 2013. Thousands of people fled from the town of Bor to the tiny community of Mingkaman across the Nile river, transforming it virtually overnight into a mass campsite sheltering 80,000 displaced women, children and men.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was one of the first humanitarian agencies on the ground, distributing food and setting up a water treatment plant. Simple pit latrines were built to cope with immediate needs but these quickly overflowed.

Australian aid worker James Godbee was part of the ICRC delegation in South Sudan. A former combat engineer with the Australian army, James was assigned to the Mingkaman camp in March 2014 to review the sanitation situation.

"With the approach of the wet season, many latrines had collapsed or overflowed, spreading faecal matter," James reports. "There were high rates of acute, watery diarrhoea and an outbreak of hepatitis E with several fatalities, mainly pregnant women."

Fortunately South Sudan Red Cross was there, with a team of volunteers who had lost their own homes in the conflict, yet were determined to help their neighbours.

The challenge was twofold: safely remove the open pit latrines and build new ones that would survive the wet season. Part one, as James describes it, was "relatively simple, albeit disgusting" - the team tore down the collapsed structures and burnt them, sprayed the latrine plates with chlorine, applied lime to the pits and filled them with soil.

Next came the intractable challenge of designing latrines that were high enough to prevent rain intrusion, durable enough to last out the rainy season, and voluminous enough to meet the needs of the ever-growing camp population. Various options were explored and discarded: a pit lined with sandbags was unlikely to be stable enough, bricks and concrete were too hard to acquire … and time was rapidly running out before the camp became uninhabitable.

"Ultimately, frustration was the inspiration," James said. Waiting for a helicopter at Juba airport one afternoon, the ICRC team noticed a stack of shipping containers , and realised they were durable, transportable and voluminous - exactly what the camp needed.

"The solution worked as follows," he explains. "The logistics team purchased the containers and sent them to Mingkaman by truck. We welded an internal frame to keep the containers rigid, cut holes for the latrines and put squatting plates on top. Then we buried the containers with the top 50cm elevated, and contracted local workers to build the roof, ventilation pipes and stalls using timber, iron sheeting and tarpaulins."

The new latrines are now in regular use, with South Sudan Red Cross being trained in their ongoing maintenance. Feedback from the camp residents is highly positive and incidents of water-borne disease have decreased.

"There are no simple solutions for any sanitation problems, really," James reflects. "The key is to incorporate the design principles of sanitation engineering and take into account the local environmental, logistical and cultural context."

The ICRC and South Sudan Red Cross will stay in Mingkaman as long as they are needed. For James, it's a dream job despite the occasional olfactory assaults. "I get to wake up every morning and throw open my tent to see the sun rising over the Nile. Then I get to spend all day welding, cutting and building things. How could any engineer not love that?"

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Photos: James Godbee/ICRC

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