Tuesday, March 25, 2008

World Water Day: overcrowding in prisons poses global water and sanitation challenges

Feature: 17/03/08

The rising number of detainees and prisoners in many conflict-affected countries is putting a major strain on the coping capacity of detention centres to meet inmates' water, sanitation and overall public health needs. In many societies, prisons are forgotten or neglected, causing them to become breeding grounds for disease due to a lack of clean water, limited access to latrines, inadequate waste management, poor hygiene and overcrowded living quarters.

The ICRC annually visits more than 2,500 places of detention, which hold about half a million people, in around 70 countries worldwide. Its assessment of water, health and sanitation needs is based on these visits, which aim to improve conditions and treatment of detainees where needed.

Fundamental rights

"Existing infrastructures can't deal with rising prison populations, and the problem is getting worse across the board… not just in developing countries," says Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC's Water and Habitat Unit.

"Too often, communities turn a blind eye to what goes on inside their prisons, but everyone has a fundamental right to use a proper toilet, clean themselves regularly, eat healthy food and drink safe water, including people behind bars," he adds. "Ensuring adequate living conditions is also one of the best ways to prevent illnesses, such as cholera, scabies and hepatitis from spreading among inmates, as well as to the outside population."

Mardini's comments come ahead of World Water Day 2008, which will be observed on 20 March and will highlight global sanitation challenges.

The ICRC works with the authorities in charge of detention centres to encourage and support improvements to the living situation of inmates and detainees. This support comes in various forms, including monitoring, expertise in identifying problems and solutions, materials and project implementation.

"For the ICRC, sanitation, water, health and protection issues go hand-in-hand", says Mardini. "That's why we look at the situation as a whole and try to help prison officials in finding appropriate, sustainable and inventive solutions."

In Rwanda, the ICRC has come up with an innovative alternative to septic tanks, thanks to a biogas system, which turns gas collected from wastewater and sewage into an additional source of energy that can be used to heat the stoves in prison kitchens, thus reducing costs.

"This is a great illustration of how waste can be treated in a safe and environmentally friendly manner, and transformed into a useful by-product," says Mardini. "The problem of detention overcrowding isn't going to go away anytime soon so we have to start coming up with more solutions like this, which meet multiple needs and challenges."

©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00092
Somalia, Bakool region, Bara Brio. The ICRC distributes water.
zoom button
click to enlarge
Somalia, Bakool region, Bara Brio. The ICRC distributes water.
©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00092

Water scarcity

The ICRC's water and habitat programme isn't limited to detention centres only. Its activities also meet the water and sanitation needs of more than 14 million people in over 40 countries every year.

Insecurity and displacement are often exacerbated by prolonged drought or poor infrastructure. When water is scarce and hostilities are high, the combination can increase competition among communities, generate tensions and spur people to leave their homes.

For example, some areas of Somalia, which has seen a recent increase in fighting in the capital of Mogadishu, have experienced very little rainfall for more than two years. In places where water is already in short supply, an influx of people displaced by violence can prove devastating.

"With very limited water and pastures which are beyond reach, the population can't do much more than hope for rain," says Julian Jones, the ICRC's water and habitat coordinator for Somalia.

The ICRC is working to support these vulnerable populations by providing two million litres of water to around 350,000 people per day in Somalia's Mudug, northern Bakool, eastern Bay and Galgadud regions.