Barrels for refugees and smallholder farmers in the drylands (Willem Van Cotthem)


Conflict situations all over the world, nature catastrophes, climate change (drought and desertification) and wars caused a constantly growing number of refugees and displaced persons. For the residents of temporary refugee camps, but also for people living in drought affected regions, two main problems are :

* Access to water, in particular drinking water.
* Access to fresh food (vitamins, mineral elements).

Start of a family garden in one of the refugee camps in S.W. Algeria. Application of drip irrigation. Having a 200 liter-barrel would enable cultivating sufficient fresh food for the whole family (Photo Philip HITTEPOLE)


In arid or semi-arid regions, water is usually collected by women and children, carrying heavy loads over considerable distances to their tents or houses.  Providing availability of drinking water in the immediate neighborhood of the refugee camps has to be seen as an efficient relieve of the burden of carrying water repeatedly from the source to the camp.

In order to offer internally displaced persons (IDPs) easier access to water, the joint United Nations-African peacekeeping force (UNAMID) intends to distribute thousands of 75 liters (4 jerry cans) water  containers (barrels) across the Darfur area, where water is one of the major sources of conflict.

Mr. Ibrahim GAMBARI, Head of UNAMID, declared: “The project is to make life easier and safer for women, and also to underscore the fact that water hasn’t only been a source of conflict; it is also the solution.  It is our hope that their use will not only support former displaced persons, but also help protect civilians as they return to resume their lives.

Fore sure, the distribution of water containers is a very recommendable initiative.  Together with the installation of tents or other shelters, this should be a conditio sine qua non when installing a refugee camp.  Access to water can contribute to solving the conflict.

However, we are convinced that offering a 75 liter-barrel to the refugee families is only a part of the solution to make life in the camps easier, safer and better.  Indeed, besides the need for safe drinking water (4 jerry-cans may be sufficient), we consider it a human necessity to install close to every shelter (tent) a small family garden, e.g. 50 m2, to let the refugees grow their own fresh food.  And therefore, some irrigation water should also be available close to the shelter.

For every family a barrel of 200 liter would solve all the irrigation problems for keeping a small family garden in good shape.

2007-04 – School garden in refugee camp of Dahla (S.W. Algeria). If some barrels were available the children wouldn’t have to bring every morning some water in bottles (Photo WVC)


All over the world, the industry uses barrels or drums of diverse forms and dimensions to transport or ship materials and products.  Those used for liquids are often coated to avoid negative effects of the liquid on the inner wall of the barrel.  Even in agriculture, a number of reservoirs or tanks, mostly in UV-resistant materials, are used to ship products or food.

Eventually, many industrial divisions encounter problems to find a new destination for used barrels, drums and tanks.  These have to be thoroughly cleaned (steamed), taken out of circulation, dumped, recycled or sold as second hand products.  Generally, these actions are too expensive for the industry and thus the barrels are destroyed.

UV-resistant barrels, drums, reservoirs or tanks with a sufficient capacity, e.g. 200 liter, should never be destroyed, but sent to arid or semi-arid developing countries, where they can be used as a water tank, not only in refugee camps, but even by rural families.

Two questions remain :

(1) Will the “Western” and “Eastern” industry agree to make these “useless containers” available for development aid ?
(2) Which existing organization (international or non-governmental) considers this idea valuable enough to set up a structure for collecting and shipping the industrial containers from the developed to the developing world ?

It should be taken into account that these containers , instead of sending them empty, can also be filled with valuable goods for development actions.  We are thinking here at a good example : WFP could ship its  food aid in big barrels.

An organization in developed countries could collect the “useless” barrels in the industry and make them available for development organizations for shipping aid goods to their projects, particularly to those in drought affected regions.


It has been shown that family gardening is a very efficient tool in the combat of child malnutrition and hunger.  We received many questions about the possible costs of such a garden.  Here are some ideas to help people estimating those costs :

A. Composition of a garden kit

1 barrel of 200 liter for water storage (blue plastic, UV-resistant): see above
5 kg of water-absorbent soil conditioner
1 kg NPK fertilizer
Commercial seeds (10 small packages of different species)
1 spade
1 rake
1 small hand-rake
1 watering can (UV resistant)

B. Additional costs

Training fee for local agronomist (1/2 day + local travel)


Fencing of 30-50 m2 (poles, fence)
Labor (soil treatment, watering)


We are hoping that these ideas can motivate organizations to help refugees and/or  hungry people to a better life by offering them access to water and food, at least starting with a barrel and some necessities for a small garden.

Once again, we don’t need billions of dollars to make poor people healthy and happy !

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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