Sarah Walpole: Rain in the desert—a public health emergency that you might not have heard about

You might not have heard about the humanitarian emergency that began to unravel in Western Sahara last week.

The Saharawi people live in exile in one of the world’s harshest climates. They cope well with dry desert heat, choosing to stay inside during the hottest part of the day and sometimes covering themselves with blankets to keep their own body temperature below that of the air outside. Water is a precious resource: for drinking, washing, and for dowsing blankets to keep cool. You might have thought that rain would come as a relief.

But it’s been raining heavily for a week, and this is not a blessing for the communities living in Western Sahara. Flooding has destroyed hospitals, schools, latrines, and precious food supplies.

Many Saharawi live in mud brick homes, which are destroyed in heavy rains; the more fortunate live in tents, which fare a little better. The homes of an estimated 25 000 people have been destroyed.

This is a humanitarian emergency. An external stressor (the most severe rains known in 40 years) has caused material and economic losses, and serious disruption to the Saharawi community.

And yet, this is not a story that we hear about in the news. A review (albeit not a very systematic one) of the English language media produced one result. All Africa caution that floods may cause “skin diseases, pneumonia, and diarrhoea.” Even in the Spanish, Italian, and French media, coverage is sparse. Italy announced on Friday that it would give €200 000. When floods destroyed an estimated 15 000 to 25 000 homes in Sudan in 2013, the World Health Organization and Unicef set up emergency clinics to respond.

The Saharawi are used to their story not being heard. Their ancestors were Berbers, Arabs, and Black Africans, who lived nomadic lifestyles. In the 1900s, they began to settle in towns in Western Sahara where there were phosphate mines, but in 1975 Morocco invaded Western Sahara. Many Saharawi were driven into the harsh Algerian desert, and others live under Moroccan occupation.

For nearly 40 years, four to five refugee camps around Tindouf in Algeria have been home to approximately 160 000 Saharawi people (half of the Saharawi population). The camps are democratically run and their official representatives are called the Polisario. The religion is Islam and women have an important role in the community. This is described as “Africa’s last colony” and the struggle for self determination goes on.

A Saharawi proverb says that “you can’t reach the shade by being impatient.” The patience and resilience of these people has been sorely tested. A timely and proportionate response to the recent flooding could not only mitigate the worst effects of this public health emergency, it could also help to make the Saharawi people’s story heard.

Sarah Walpole is a medical registrar, currently working at the Sustainable Healthcare Education network and Freedom from Torture.

Competing interests: Sarah was the Green Party parliamentary candidate for Hull East in the 2015 elections.