8 May 2003

Central African Republic: No safe drinking water for northern population, says UN

A UN humanitarian assessment mission to the northern province of Ouham, in the Central African Republic, found that water facilities had been seriously damaged during six-months of fighting, Diego Zorilla, who headed the 2-6 May mission, told IRIN on Wednesday.

"The most urgent needs are in water facilities and sanitation," Zorilla, head of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) bureau in CAR, said.

The mission, he said, found that just six of the 20 wells UNICEF had dug in Bossangoa, 305 km north of Bangui, the capital, were still in a good state. In addition, he said that equipment belonging to the state water utility, the Societe des Eaux de Centrafrique, had been looted; rendering the company unable to provide safe drinking water.

"Many of those materials as well as those looted from hospitals are being sold in local markets," he said. "We held meetings with chiefs of neighbourhoods to urge them to convince the population to return those materials."

Private and public buildings were vandalised, looted or destroyed during the rebellion. "No social, health or administrative infrastructure is working in Ouham Province," he said.

Only a few health centres were able to deal with emergencies, he added, because of the support from the Spanish medical charity, Medicos Sin Fronteras. The NGO is due to close its emergency programmes in the province later in May.

Zorilla said UNICEF feared there would be epidemics, as vaccine refrigeration equipment had been looted and because there had been no immunisation campaign in the area since 2002.

"There were 35 immunisation centres [in Ouham] but none of them is operational today," he said.

With a population of 325,000 and in the northwest of the country, Ouham was the province worst affected by the rebellion from October 2002 to March 2003 that pitted forces of the nation's present leader, Francois Bozize, and those of former President Ange-Felix Patasse. Bozize, a native of Bossangoa, toppled Patasse in a coup on 15 March.

Schools in the province are still closed because students and teachers who had fled the fighting have still not returned. However, Zorilla said UNICEF and the Ministry of Education were considering how best to transport the teachers back to their respective posts "to rescue the school year".

He said the UN had urged the government to send the newly appointed governors to their posts and provide them with adequate logistic means to reassure the population, most of who have returned to their homes, and restore security.

The mission to the north, composed of officials from the UN World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Fund, was the first there since October 2002. Their inspection came just a week after the UN system in the country appeal for US $9.1 million for 2.2 million war-victims.

Meantime, UNICEF has started distributing drugs to six provinces in the east. In April, UNICEF received drugs and medical equipment worth US $550,000 that are to benefit 890,000 people in the east for three months. During the six-month rebellion, the east was completely cut off from its supply routes. The same operation is to be carried out by Cooperazione Internationale in the north.

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