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Opening the “largest water system for any refugee camp in the world”

The International Rescue Committee officially opened two permanent water systems for Bokolmayo and Kobe camps in Ethiopia’s Dolo Ado complex, home to tens of thousands of Somali refugees.

“The Bokolmayo water system is the largest and most complex water delivery system for any refugee camp in the world,” says David Murphy, who runs the IRC’s programs in Ethiopia. “It pumps water from a river 18 kilometers (more than 11 miles) from the camp, has a permanent treatment plant to clean the water, two pump-boosting stations, and finally another 19 kilometers of distribution piping within the camp.” In all, the system employs 37 kilometers of pipeline. “This is quite a feat of engineering,” notes Murphy, “especially in a remote region” on the border with Somalia.

The IRC is the leading water supply agency in Dolo Ado, where more than 184,300 refugees have settled, with Bokolmayo far exceeding the 30,000-person limit established when that camp was set up in 2009. “When the area began receiving a large influx of refugees from Somalia in 2011, we played a large role in providing water to the newly arrived refugees,” recalls Murphy. 

The IRC worked closely with Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs throughout the construction process, carefully identifying sites for the various system components, including accessible locations for water points. Bokolmayo’s geography presented unique challenges: the terrain is rocky and arid, making drilling and pipeline construction particularly difficult. Heavy rains often wash out main roads, limiting access to the construction site while increasing the difficulty of delivering clean water by truck. Skilled workers were hard to find, and the camp’s remote location complicated the procurement of materials.

“Completion of the Bokolmayo permanent water system means that the majority of Bokolmayo residents live within 200 meters of an IRC-built water point,” says Murphy. The system also serves approximately 4,700 host community members living in the surrounding villages, where the IRC has installed six water points.

Now camp residents and local community members are able to collect potable water for household use on a daily basis, reducing the risk of water-borne diseases like diarrhea and contributing to ongoing hygiene and sanitation efforts in and around the camp.

Bokolmayo and Kobe water systems by the numbers 

  • 31 water points, serving 31,656 refugees in Kobe
  • 2,100 Kobe host community members served through 5 water points 
  • 63 water points serving 40,423 refugees in Bokolmayo 
  • 4,700 Bokolmayo host community members served through 6 water points 
  • 18 kilometers of pressured pipeline in Bokolmayo 
  • 460,000 liters of clean water held in Bokolmayo’s reservoirs; 276,000 liters held in Kobe
  • 40 persons trained in the operation and maintenance of permanent water systems 

Story by Sophia Jones