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Aceh village still battling for water

BBC News - June 2, 2005

Becky Lipscombe, Lampuuk – Lampuuk was virtually destroyed in the 26 December tsunami Five months after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated large parts of the Indonesian province of Aceh, the village of Lampuuk is still struggling to get back on its feet.

It is still totally reliant on daily deliveries of water, courtesy of local and international NGOs. Tankers trundle every day along George Bush and Bill Clinton Street, quickly renamed after the visit of the two former US presidents in February.

The vehicles come to a stop near the mosque – the centre of village life now, and the location of the village's three big blue storage tanks. Pipes from the tanks lead to taps near the shacks and tents that have sprung up nearby.

This water is purely for cooking and drinking purposes. The villagers say they are never sure when the water is coming or who is bringing it, so they use it sparingly.

Huge project

Before the earthquake and tsunami last December there were no such worries – Lampuuk had a plentiful water supply. There were wells in all of the houses, and some also had access to spring water from the mountains.

"Our water was really, really clear," said Ibu Mariani, a schools inspector in Lampuuk. "We could drink it straight from the well. Even the wells closest to the sea were fresh."

Lampuuk's wells were destroyed in the tsunami. When the houses they stood in were washed away, the wells were filled with sea water, sand and rubble.

Cleaning them is a massive task. "It can take us up to four days to repair one well," said Pak Ayum from the International Committee of the Red Cross. "And we're trying to repair 500 of them in Lampuuk," he added.

Once the sand and debris is removed, the salt water is pumped out – a process that has to be repeated several times. Then the well is checked for leaks, and the ring at the top rebuilt.

"Luckily the wells aren't very deep here," said Pak Ayum. "You hit water about three metres below the surface. We just need some more rain to help flush out the salty water from the ground."

There is no shortage of rain at the moment in Lampuuk. There have been massive storms over the past couple of weeks, but it seems still more is needed.

"This water is still really salty," said Ibu Mariani as she scrubbed her clothes on what used to be the concrete floor of someone else's home. "It makes our skin dry and itchy, and it smells bad. And no matter what detergent you use, the white clothes turn yellow."

'We've gone back to zero'

Ibu Mariani is doing her laundry in a small area next to a well, screened by plastic sheeting but open to the elements. It doubles as a bathroom for her and her neighbours.

Like so many others, Ibu Mariani's life has been turned upside down in the past five months. She used to have a washing machine to take care of the laundry, and there were three wells in her big house.

"It's so sad, what's happened here," she said. "It's like we've gone back to zero. Please pray for us, because we don't know when we'll get back to how we were before."

Water will continue to be trucked into Lampuuk for at least a few more months, but the experts agree that the long term prospects for the village are good.

Besides the wells, Lampuuk has access to spring water from the mountains. The international aid agency Oxfam is currently working on restoring that water supply – redeveloping the source of the springs, then repairing and cleaning the pipes.

"The first phase will be a distribution point into a T45 – a storage facility which can hold 45,000 litres of water," said Ian Clarke, the project manager.

"That will distribute into where people are located currently. But in the longer term, as people's houses are reconstructed, we can work on the second phase, which is bringing the water direct to peoples' homes." Rebel insurgency

There are political considerations, though, as well as practical ones. The springs are in the hills just behind the village. It is an area in which the Indonesian government says rebels fighting for an independent Aceh have been active.

So Oxfam has to tread carefully. "It's a complex environment in terms of security," Mr Clarke acknowledged. "There have been some instances with the separatist movement, though not affecting us or the local community. But of course the government is keen to ensure the protection of the people and the NGOs. So this is a negotiation process, but I think it will be resolved quickly."

Oxfam hopes it can finish the first phase of the project within six weeks. Meanwhile, more wells are being rehabilitated each day.

Slowly but steadily, Lampuuk's water supply is recovering from the damage inflicted upon it by the giant waves last December.