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Back to basics

Rising violence and sectarian atrocities in the Moluccas threaten to spark a humanitarian crisis in Indonesia as people seek sanctuary on neighbouring tropical islands. Colum Wilson is an engineering relief worker doing his best to help in a bleak situati

Our human convoy wound uphill, struggling under its heavy burden of building materials. We were deep in a rainforest in a remote corner of the Indonesian archipelago, and a monsoon deluge had left me knee deep in mud. It was past midnight and I was carrying a toilet.

Others clutched zinc sheeting, timber and reinforcement bar as they trudged along the winding path. Between us we had all the basic ingredients for providing sticking plaster engineering aid to a few thousand displaced people establishing a new settlement in the wilderness.

They were a fraction of the estimated 120,000 who had recently arrived unannounced on this small, thinly populated tropical island. Depending on who you believe, the island's population has increased by more than 25% over the last year, far outstripping the resources of the local government and the capacity of the local economy to cope. It is the perfect recipe for a humanitarian crisis.

My organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres, has had a presence here in Buton in South East Sulawesi for almost 18 months.

In the last few months, however, MSF's relief work has taken on a new significance. In a resolution adopted recently by the European parliament, the Western world finally acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis in the Moluccas.

With sectarian atrocities spiraling out of control and with mounting evidence that the security forces are taking sides or simply running away, the trickle of civilians fleeing the violence has turned into a flood.

Many have come to Buton, a palm-fringed paradise island far off the beaten track. Throughout Indonesia, outside the international spotlight focused on Moluccas and Timor, MSF is running emergency medical relief programs to meet the humanitarian needs of these internally displaced people. Our medical work is often underpinned by water and sanitation programmes so there is always a need for experienced engineers.

Our ant-like procession crested the hill, and there, spread out below us, was the settlement - pinpricks of light in the darkness. I readjusted my toilet.

For the next five weeks, this was to be my home.

I would live in the barrack block hastily thrown together as temporary accommodation for the displaced population, and because we were almost inaccessible to the outside world, I would eat the same scanty food as they did. My mission was to provide emergency water and sanitation facilities for approximately 5,000 people.

The reality of relief engineering is a strange mixture. On the one hand, engineers are faced with many of the issues familiar to any NCE reader - although the logistical considerations often have a local flavour (how do you get 70 bags of cement 10km into the rain forest? ). On the other hand, project programmers would be driven to distraction as activities on site may not allow the most cost-effective or efficient use of resources.

In reality, the first phase of a relief intervention is a bout of reflexive activity in which the sequence of actions is driven by uncompromising considerations, such as the number of people suffering from malaria or dying from cholera.

In the new settlement, my immediate concern was to secure drinking water. Just a few days after the new population arrived, indiscriminate defecation had turned the only available watercourses into major health hazards. And while rainwater harvesting from the new zinc roofs provided a quick-fix interim solution, the imminent start of the dry season meant that an alternative had to be found.

It was at that point that I was introduced to the traditional water diviner. According to him, the condensation that gathers on the underside of a banana leaf left on the ground overnight is a surefire way of determining the presence of a viable subsurface source. As a confirmatory survey technique, he knelt down and pressed his ear to the ground - an extra service that costs the equivalent of 50p.

A few trial pits showed that he was more often right than wrong. It also became clear from my excavations that the new settlement was located on a geological jigsaw. In isolated places there were pockets of heavy red clay, but for the most part we were digging into deep beds of hard shale and karsitic limestone, where occasional subterranean streams teeming with fish ran through the cavities. In this remote location, heavy excavation machinery was out of the question, so 'plant' meant a squad of forty men armed with picks and chisels.

As MSF was the only employer offering work in the area, fairness demanded that I regularly rotate the workforce.

But although every eligible male was clamouring to earn a day's wage, it soon became clear to me that some of them were more accustomed to manual labour than others. Among the workforce were merchants, teachers and civil servants - refugees from Ambon city, the commercial hub of the Moluccas Islands.

Although the city is now reduced to a patchwork of sectarian ghettoes patrolled by heavilyarmed rioters, it was once home to 400,000 and boasted fast food outlets, international standard hotels and department stores.

It was not surprising, therefore, that in spite of their reduced circumstances, people had expectations no different from those of any modern city dwellers. The few belongings they had brought with them reflected their priorities: within days, battery-powered televisions were flickering inside shelters, and karaoke machines were blaring.

I have been working in different locations in Indonesia for more than a year now, and it is clear that the major challenges I face are not the technical problems. Often they are the difficulties of reconciling the aspirations of displaced but sophisticated populations with very basic water and sanitation imperatives. Perhaps this is the fate of the modern engineering relief worker.

In such circumstances, basic community education is a vital way of reinforcing the link between water, sanitation and health. Within a few days of my arrival in the new settlement, I completed one such session about the protection of water sources, and was hopeful that my message had got through.

'Are there any questions?' I asked, surveying the sea of blank, smiling faces around me.

A tentative hand went up.

'Please, mister, does MSF build cinemas?'

Colum Wilson is a relief worker with Medecins Sans Frontieres

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