Photo above: Former Ambassador to South Sudan Robert van den Dool visiting Bentiu refugee camp

Using age-old Dutch knowledge and expertise to make a huge difference to the lives of tens of thousands of displaced persons in Africa. It sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s become reality in Bentiu, South Sudan. At the initiative of the Dutch embassy in Juba, a genuine Dutch polder was constructed at the largest refugee camp in South Sudan. It’s a very concrete example of how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its missions all over the world are shaping development cooperation and humanitarian aid.

Refugee camp in Bentiu
Inside Bentiu refugee camp


Bentiu is a terrible place for a refugee camp: it’s swampland that completely floods during the monsoon season. And yet it’s home to 130,000 displaced persons, living side by side in an area measuring just 1 x 1.5 kilometres. Initially designed as a UN base, it became an improvised refugee camp. The ongoing fighting in northern South Sudan has caused massive numbers of people to flee their homes, leading to what can only be described as a humanitarian crisis.

Rubber boots

When the former Dutch Ambassador Robert van den Dool and water expert Felix Hoogveld visited the camp in 2014, they were shocked at what they found. The water was so high it ran into their rubber boots. They realised they had to do something about the situation. The inhabitants of the camp couldn’t be relocated, so the camp had to be made more habitable. People needed to be able to keep their feet and their possessions dry. Since this was a water problem, Dutch water expertise really fitted the bill.

Robert van den Dool (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Robert van den Dool empties water out of his boot

From pumps to a ring dike

A Dutch initiative brought pumps to Bentiu. But what was really needed was a structural solution for the hundred thousand or so people who will need a place of refuge in South Sudan in the years ahead. Embassy staff and Dutch water experts got together to seek a longer-term solution. Sweco Nederland – or Grontmij, as it was then – a Dutch firm specialising in water management, worked out a detailed plan to build a dike around the camp, effectively placing it in a polder. The plan included canals, roads and culverts to ensure good drainage. At the same time it was clear that the camp was too small to cope with the continuing stream of displaced persons. So it was decided to expand the camp and the dike, and to construct more decent housing.

It wasn’t easy getting all the necessary machinery to the area, given the difficult terrain, bad roads and the ongoing civil war. But they did it. A ring dike was constructed, along with drainage channels, roads and larger pumps. In the space of four months, South Sudan acquired a real Dutch polder. A sustainable solution that won’t just last for a monsoon season, but for many years to come.
The Netherlands took the lead in South Sudan. The approach adopted by the embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs resulted in co-funding and support from all parties concerned. One partner was the International Organization for Migration. So what about the camp in Bentiu? It’s our own Dutch polder, they’re saying in South Sudan. It’s been transformed from a place not fit for human habitation to a place people in acute need can seek temporary shelter in reasonable conditions.

Development cooperation: working on 4 themes

The Dutch government seeks to promote sustainable economic growth in developing countries. Development policy focuses on four major themes: security and the rule of law, water management, food security and sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Netherlands has a great deal of expertise and an important network in the field of water management and development cooperation, and is aware of the issues facing countries like South Sudan. It brings expertise to regions like this and helps the local population to tackle problems.

By deploying Dutch water expertise in South Sudan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is helping to improve water management there and providing emergency aid. The successful construction of the polder in Bentiu underlines the added value the Netherlands and partnership with Dutch businesses can provide when it comes to solving issues like these.