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Source of tension


Kosovan refugees in Albania are being moved from the mountainous north to the low-lying south and west. But as Matthew Jones discovers on a visit to the Hamallaj refugee camp, there are many problems with the new sites.

At 8.30am on 22 May the first two busloads of Kosovan refugees arrives at the Hamallaj refugee camp in western Albania, rather earlier than expected.

'This is all we need,' says Mark Ellery, an engineer with RedR - Engineers for Disaster Relief.

Ellery is an Australian member of RedR who has been assigned to charity Oxfam to help set up the camp's water supply. But as the refugees spill out of the buses and start looking around their new home, the system is still not up and running.

Fifteen minutes later, one of the refugees, a wizened old man, approaches the camp's manager who works for Christian charity Samaritan's Purse. The manager ushers over the charity's camera crew and publicity team, expecting the man to say favourable things. But it is soon clear that he is not happy.

'In Kosovo I was a water engineer,' the man tells them. 'This camp is not suitable for us. There is not yet any water, the tents are not in the shade and we are far from the road. The people who registered us for this camp lied to us. How can our children live here?'

There is a moment of stunned silence. Then the camp manager says to the crowd gathered around the old man: 'OK, no problem. Could you please all just get back on the bus quietly.'

Ellery is not surprised by the reaction of the Kosovans and is too busy to be upset. He has been telling the Samaritan's Purse officials for days about his problems in getting water to the tents, but they have continued to press for refugees to be brought to the camp early.

'Distribution is not a problem once the water is here, but my arse has been hanging out over the last few days trying to source the stuff,' he says bluntly.

The Hamallaj camp is set on low-lying land close to the coast. Although it is interlaced with drainage ditches and canals, the water is too salty to drink and has a high concentration of pesticides and nitrates.

A borehole about 1km away was found to be polluted. The nearest water main is about 3km away. To get any decent quality water to the camp presents a challenge - Ellery has to cater for 10,000 refugees.

To get around the problem Oxfam's engineering team, led by RedR committee member Nick Willson, has come up with a dual water system. About half the water is being drawn from the canals and purified using three mobile reverse osmosis plants provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The remainder will be drawn from the nearest water main and stored off-site in corrugated steel tanks at the side of the road. From there it will be tankered into the camp.

'This is not a sustainable solution in the long term but what it does is buy us time so we can develop other solutions such as drilling or piping water in from the hills,' says Willson.

But to the frustration of the whole Oxfam team, local politics are hindering the plan. The tankering point has been complete for two weeks, but so far the camp has not been able to use a single drop of this water.

'The local water authority has signed an agreement with the Spanish military to draw water from the main but we are still waiting for it to give the UNHCR permission for this camp,' he explains.

Despite this Ellery and his gang of Albanian workers have made good progress with the reverse osmosis plants and the distribution network. The main pipes have already been laid and joined on the surface for speed. All that remains is to test them for leaks before dropping them safely into trenches.

It is a tense time for Ellery. His gang works hard but few of them have done this type of task before. He fully expects there

will be problems with the pipe joints.

As he starts the electric pump to charge up the three pressure vessels fed from a 35m3 storage tank, it is clear that there are problems even before the water gets to the pipes. A tapping at the inlet to one of the pressure vessels has not been plugged properly and a cascade of water spills out onto the ground.

Ellery explains that he has been unable to get the brass plug necessary to fit the unwanted tapping for the past few days as even basic spare parts are hard to come by in Albania.

'A lot of the internal manufacturing capacity was destroyed after the fall of the communist regime in 1992 and the country is so poor that it imports only exactly what it needs,' he says.

The plug is only a small component but it could potentially hold up the water supply to half of the camp. He will have to get one made up at a local workshop. But in the mean time he improvises with a bit of bungey rubber and a couple of pieces of wire.

As the afternoon wears on Ellery makes a few more adjustments and then charges the pressure vessels up to one bar. The gate valves to the pipes are opened and Ellery sends his workers around the camp to look out for problems on the pipe network. Fifteen minutes later they return with good news: no leaks at all.

With water in the pipes, RedR engineer Nicola Adams has the task of checking its pH and chlorine concentration at the source and the taps with a field test kit. It is the moment of truth. More refugees have arrived after a long journey and having the water ready will be key to persuading them to stay.

The chlorine value is slightly high but within the acceptable level for drinking, proclaims Adams. The first of the Kosovans - a small boy and his father - rush to the taps for a drink. They seem satisfied and the young boy splashes for a few moments in the powerful stream.

'Fantastic!' says Ellery. 'This is what makes it all worthwhile.'

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