Watershed volunteer fixing toilet

Volunteering on Lesvos with Watershed

CamCRAG trustee Ed Sexton is volunteering with Watershed in Moria refugee camp on Lesvos for four weeks. CamCRAG supported Watershed with a grant of £3,000 at the end of last summer.

Watershed volunteer fixing toiletA day volunteering with Watershed starts early. We leave Mytilene, the main town on Lesvos, in time for a 7am morning briefing at the NGO’s workshop, before going to the camp to start our rounds. Every morning Watershed checks the toilets, showers, sinks and associated drainage for the entire camp, and the less formal settlement that is rapidly growing into the surrounding olive groves.

With only approximately 300 toilets for almost 20,000 people, every day there are problems to fix; blocked toilets and drains, broken doors, locks, cisterns, taps and valves. The Greek authorities do help, employing workers who do a basic daily clean of toilets and showers.

As the camp grows there is insufficient provision of all WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities, so Watershed is attempting to expand them: Currently they are building a new ‘pad’ – a concrete area about 8x8m, with taps and drainage, where residents can wash clothes, food, and collect water.

However, the basic water and electricity infrastructure is insufficient to meet demand, with taps running dry for hours at a time, and daily blackouts. Unsurprisingly resentment builds up, and turns to anger: Protests, often met with force by the Greek police, are common.

Watershed volunteer drilling drainage for new WASH padThere are many other grassroot NGOs doing amazing work in the camp and elsewhere on the island. I have visited the excellent Lava Project, which washes clothes and bedding for the most vulnerable people in Moria. This is essential as scabies is common, and the only way to remove it from fabric is to wash it at 50°C, which is virtually impossible inside the camp. As most refugees have only one set of bedding and limited clothes, they aim to provide a daily turnaround service, collecting bedding in the morning and returning it that evening, washed and dried.

Several people have now told me, though, that they consider Watershed to be the most essential of the grassroot NGOs working in Moria camp. Without them, in my opinion, the basic WASH infrastructure of the camp would collapse within days. I have volunteered with several groups in both Calais and Paris over the past four years, but this is by far the most physically demanding work I’ve done in the refugee crisis. I am only here for four weeks – some of Watershed’s volunteers have been here for months, even years. Their commitment and strength – physical, mental and emotional – is outstanding.

Watershed volunteers levelling concreteThe nature of the work also means you are exposed to a lot of germs, so if you do consider volunteering with them good hygiene practice is essential, make sure you’re up to date with all your vaccinations, and I’d also recommend a flu jab.

Watershed welcomes volunteers who can come for a few weeks or more, particularly if you have experience in plumbing, festival-builds, electrical work and construction. More refugees arrive on the island almost every day: Aegean Boat Report recorded 202 arrivals on Lesvos last week, and 174 were transferred to the mainland, giving a net gain of 28 refugees. The week before, that number was over 500.

So, if you have some free time this spring or summer, consider volunteering with Watershed – I can guarantee it will get you beach body ready. If it sounds a bit much, perhaps help at the Lava Project instead, or one of the other NGOs working to improve conditions on the Greek Islands. They definitely need you.

You can find out more about Watershed and the Lava Project, including information on how to volunteer, on their websites and facebook pages:

Watershed logo



Lava Project logo



Statistics on arrivals in the Aegean can be found at aegeanboatreport.com

aegean boart report logo