IRC Responds to Public Health Threat at Refugee Sites in Eastern Chad
When tens of thousands of Sudanese fled across the border into eastern Chad to escape violence in Darfur, Sudan , they took their livestock with them. But the animals are now dying from hunger, thirst and exhaustion and their carcasses, which litter the settlements where the refugees are sheltering, are posing significant public health and psychological problems.
The IRC's emergency coordinator in eastern Chad, Gillian Dunn, sent this dispatch on the situation and what the IRC is doing to respond:
The people of Northern Darfur in Sudan and Bahai in northeastern Chad are known for their expertise in elevage , or animal husbandry. The nomads here have been raising and herding animals for generations, continuously moving from place to place in search of fodder and water. Livestock, including goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, and camels, are important not only for the food they provide, but also for transport (including water), and as symbols of heritage and wealth.
Two factors have had a devastating effect on the animals and their owners this year. The first is that for the first time in 25 years, the rains were meager in northern Chad , and therefore pasturage for the animals is sparse. The second is the increased violence in Sudan , which is causing an exhausting forced migration of people and livestock from Darfur across the border into Chad . The effects are visible everywhere, with thousands of animal corpses strewn out across the desert. Because water is scarce and difficult to transport, the refugees bring all their remaining livestock with them when they go to the wells. Those that are too sick to return to the shelters are often left behind, thus there is a proliferation of dead and dying animals at the water points. The surviving ones are very thin, and are grazing on whatever greenery they can find.
In a recent survey we conducted with 630 refugee households in the area, one of the questions was “How many animals did you have in Sudan when you left, and how many do you have now?” The results are stark, with average losses ranging between 92 and 96%. Some of the animals have been stolen during raids, or lost as people fled their homes and land, but many others have died and are continuing to die from hunger and thirst, exacerbated by exhaustion from the long trek. A team from the Chadian government is also conducting autopsies on some of the animals to determine if an as yet unidentified disease could also be contributing to the high death rate.
In Islam, an animal must be blessed before being slaughtered, and therefore animals which have already died, even if the cause is known not to be a disease, are not eaten. Furthermore, an animal must be healthy to be slaughtered for consumption. People are often hopeful that their animals will survive, but when they fall ill, are unable to kill them for food.
During the current dry season, the animal carcasses are posing a public health problem as flies, which are a significant disease vector, are breeding on them. When the rainy season starts in a few months, the carcasses will eventually be swept into the wadis , where they could potentially contaminate the water, which is already of very poor quality. Although it is normal for there to be some animal carcasses around, especially at this time of year, there is also a considerable psychological impact on the population, as they are constantly reminded of the excessive death toll among their livestock.
This week, we began a project to collect and dispose of the animal carcasses throughout the north including Bahai, Bamina, and Cariari. This will benefit 24,000 to 28,000 people, including 14,000 to 18,000 refugees and about 9,000 local Chadians.
With support from the Whitehead Fund, we hired a pick-up truck, driver, and four workmen, and purchased materials for collecting and burning the carcasses (gloves, masks, plastic sheeting, shovels, kerosene, etc.). The initial project to dispose of the existing bodies will take 2-3 weeks. Ideally, we would like to continue this activity, at least by providing fuel for burning, to keep up with the numbers until they hopefully begin to decline with the rainy season. The project is fully endorsed and welcomed by the local authorities and the population themselves. The Governor of the region took personal interest in the planning stages and thanked IRC for both mitigating a potential public health disaster and for helping the entire population overcome the trauma associated with the loss of their lifeblood.
We are beginning the project in Bahai, where there are about 6,000 refugees and a local population of about 9,000 people. We are working closely with the Chief Veterinary Officer of the Bahai Region to find the most carcasses possible and to identify suitable sites for burning them. We also are informing the population that when possible, they should pile the animals for easier collection, and not leave the bodies where they could easily wash into the wadis .
Because the carcasses are quite dispersed and are in various states of decomposition, the work is slow, physically difficult, and unpleasant. Still, in just two days, the team has managed to collect and destroy nearly 400 carcasses in the outskirts of Bahai, most importantly near the town's wells.
IRC's Emergency Coordinator in Eastern Chad, Gillian Dunn
Wherever the team goes, they are approached and thanked by locals and refugees alike. Several people have told us that they are aware of the risk of water contamination from the carcasses and how it has happened before in other bad years. They told us that they would normally dispose of the carcasses themselves, but don't have the means to buy fuel. They also appreciate that removing the carcasses rids the area of the stench of the dead animals and the flies that are breeding on them. As soon as we removed a pile of carcasses from under one tree, which are scarce, a refugee woman immediately began sweeping up any remains in preparation for building a shelter.
Next week, we will continue with the Bahai area, and will then move on to Cariari, which probably has the biggest losses in the whole region.