With a coy smile, Jan Bibibarahouie lifts the hem of her robe ever so slightly to reveal the bruising on her ankle, before bursting into laughter.
"You see how they push and shove to get to the water," she notes with a grin. "But it is my job to keep order".
The women and children clustered around her giggle from behind their veils, nodding their agreement. It is a good-natured group - which only serves to underline the seriousness of the situation.
Mrs Bibibarahouie is one of 22 guards, each assigned to a water distribution point on the outskirts of Zahedan, in Iran's drought-stricken Sistan-Baluchistan province.
Their job is to ensure a fair and orderly distribution of this most precious of resources to more than 45,000 people, 80 per cent of whom are Afghan refugees. The rest are Iranian villagers, forced by the drought to abandon their homes. This is their only source of drinking water.
Behind Mrs Bibibarahouie's banter, one senses a steely determination. It is not hard to see why her community has chosen her - one of the few women to hold such an important position.
Her responsibilities include keeping a record of deliveries, as well as maintaining the area around the fixed 5,000-litre tank so as to prevent contamination. A neat row of brightly-coloured jerry cans snakes hopefully along the dusty track, awaiting the next delivery.
The drought which has affected this remote south-eastern province of Iran is in its seventh year and shows no sign of abating. For over three years now, the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) and the International Federation have been working to provide safe drinking water, dispose of solid waste and distribute hygiene articles to the most vulnerable people living on the outskirts of Zahedan and in the villages surrounding Zabul.
These communities have come to depend on the programme. Without it, they would have to purchase water from vendors - which at 6,000 rials (US$ 0.75) per can, is beyond their means.
A striking young Iranian woman with a piercing gaze shrugs, putting a protective arm around her youngest child. "Then, we will have less water", she states simply. Even now, the Red Cross Red Crescent programme is struggling to meet minimal recommended standards.
The Federation's Senior Field Officer in Zahedan, Amir Abdolahpour, wears a worried frown as he puts the finishing touches to the next project proposal. After all, droughts are not meant to last this long and he is concerned that donor interest will dry up well before the rains return. The current programme runs until the end of July 2004.
This is not the only complication. Iran has one of the largest refugee populations in the world, which includes more than 2.3 million Afghans, according to the authorities.
Many have been in the country for over 20 years. Now, the Government of Iran - within the framework of a tripartite agreement between itself, the Afghan authorities and the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR - is actively encouraging voluntary repatriation.
The Joint Programme is set to run until the end of March 2005, at which point the government estimates that there will be no further need for the water distribution programme.
This poses a serious conundrum for the IRCS and the Federation. After all, one cannot simply turn off the taps from one day to the next. In any event, even if all Afghan refugees have been repatriated or integrated into the community by then, the problem of the drought-affected Iranian villagers will remain.
For Dr Ali Reza Ghadiani, Director General of the IRCS branch in Sistan-Baluchistan, the answer is simple: "As long as the people need help, we are there to help them".
The challenge then, for the Federation and IRCS, has been to find a way to wind down the programme whilst ensuring some lasting impact.
In May 2004, the Federation delegation in Iran commissioned an evaluation to formulate a long-term strategy for dealing with refugees and drought and to design a possible 'exit strategy'.
As a result, the new proposal currently before donors focuses on providing essential services over the next eight months and at the same time enhancing the skills of the returning refugees to better meet future challenges as they return to Afghanistan.
Its main components are: maintaining the daily water distributions to the 45,335 beneficiaries around Zahedan and Zabul until the end of March 2005; ensuring constant water supply by building four public water distribution stations, which will be connected to the city water networks and taken over by the local water and sewage company; providing 15,000 Afghan refugees with basic health care training; and training 60 refugees as skilled community health workers.
Commitments have already been sought and obtained from local authorities in Zahedan to link these marginal communities to the local water supply, as well as ensure adequate and on-going garbage collection.
In itself, this is a big step towards local self-sufficiency - and a crucial one, if minimal standards of water distribution are to be maintained until March 2005 and beyond.
It is a carefully-crafted programme which aims to balance immediate needs with providing practical solutions for the refugees as they contemplate the unknowns of a future back in their homeland.
A few of the women have taken refuge in the shade of the water tank as the sun beats down implacably on the baking alleyways. They watch and wait, as does Mrs Bibibarahouie.
She clutches a battered copybook, its dog-eared cover belying the meticulous record inside - row upon row of neatly inscribed names, each line a testament to an uncertain future and just another drop in the bucket of these peoples' meagre existence.
... Payvand News - 8/3/04 ... --