Running his fingers over a map of Burkina Faso, stabbing at a dozen vowel-laden names of towns and villages, Abdramane Sow traces out what senior international officials are warning could be the frontline in Africa’s next major war. These are all places where local communities have come to blows over who will use the available water.
In one village close to the border with Nigeria, women with fistulas were stopped from using water points because it was thought they would spread infection. In another village in the far north of the country, deep inside the desert, access to water points is being limited according to peoples’ religion. On the outskirts of the country’s second city Bobo Dioulasso, agriculturalists, animal herders, a local village and the state water company were at loggerheads recently over access to a reservoir.
“Mostly, these are not major conflicts yet,” explained Sow, a researcher working on water conflicts at the University of Ouagadougou’s Centre for Economic and Social Studies who has mapped out the underlying dynamics behind local squabbles over water all over the country. “The worst fights seem to happen not where there is no water, but where it exists, as people can’t agree on how to share among them.”
A world aflame?
Burkina Faso’s local water squabbles are in the world’s spotlight, unusual attention in a region where year-round malnutrition that stunts the growth of hundreds of thousands of children rarely warrants a report in the international media.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in June used the Sahel region of West Africa, which includes Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, as an example of a place where the increasing spread of the desert is forcing population movements and communal clashes. He warned these conflicts could lead to “a world in flames”.
Likewise Margaret Beckett, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, has warned that “the political stability of entire nations” is at risk from climate change, and predicted more failed states as a result.
And on 12 September, the prestigious International Institite for Strategic Studies in London – best known for its Cold War work weighing up nuclear stand-offs – equated the effects of climate change to those of a nuclear war. “The security dimension will come increasingly to the forefront as countries begin to see falls in available resources and economic vitality, increased stress on their armed forces, greater instability in regions of strategic import, increases in ethnic rivalries and a widening gap between rich and poor,” the Institute predicted.
The message is not news to Burkina Faso’s leaders. Faced with annual population growth of almost 3 percent in a landlocked country which does not even have a river traversing its entire territory, at the same time as a decline in overall rainfall, the country has already developed major water projects for the two main urban areas, the capital Ouagadougou and the second city Bobo Dioulasso, which use rainwater harvesting, underground reservoirs and tapping into underground water resources to keep water flowing.
Rural areas are conspicuously ignored in the government’s plans. According to the African Development Bank (ADB), in urban areas of Burkina Faso the proportion of the population with access to running water rose from 66.3 percent in 1993-94 to 88.5 percent in 2003. In rural areas, in the same period, the rate fell from 4.8 percent to 4 percent, and access to well water fell even further, from 90 percent in 1993 and 92 percent in 1999 to 78.4 percent in 2003.
Since 1960, the state, NGOs and the UN have installed some 50,000 wells around the country, but perhaps as many as half of them are believed by NGOs who have surveyed the country to be broken down.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso’s total public investment in water services is US$13.3 million per year for water, and US$3.96 for sanitation. The ADB estimates that for Burkina Faso to meet its millennium development goal on water and sanitation by 2015, it would have to spend US$116.25 million each year over the next nine years.
Burkina Faso reflects a broader African trend. Again according to ADB data, between 1990 and 2004, 10 million people gained access to clean water facilities, but in the same 14-year period, population growth meant the total number of people without access to clean water actually grew by 60 million. The ADB says the problem is part cash, but also poor management and pollution of existing resources.
“The coverage of zones with new water facilities is a political decision,” said Yerefolo Malle, head of the non-governmental organisation WaterAid in Burkina Faso, pointing out that the cash-strapped government must allocate its scarce resources to the places it judges will best serve it.
“Urban centres are where political will is placed to avoid social clashes. We know in rural areas there is pressure, but a town of even 60,000 disgruntled people is not the same thing as 2 million. Leaders here have to make decisions about the future and they analyse it in these terms.”
Tip of the iceberg
Rainfall in Burkina Faso is dwindling further every year, notwithstanding floods this year which have devastated large parts of the country. Anecdotal evidence shows that more and more people are abandoning villages in the north of the country to try to establish themselves in the wetter south. Hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe have already moved so far south that they have crossed in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, raising the spectre of fights between animal herders and farmers who have competing needs spilling across borders.
In a break from the apparently small, intra-communal fights that have happened before, in August 2,000 people, among them 1,400 children, were forced to flee their homes by fighting between animal herders and farmers in Zounweogo province. Details of the fighting remain murky.
Sow agrees that the handful of rural conflicts his institute is mapping now could be the tip of the iceberg, if rainfall keeps decreasing while the country’s population continues to surge. “We could see a time when the water is all gone, and then we would see more and more people migrating and creating conflict,” he said. “Adaptation is the key. We have to find ways the community can adapt to climate change – and fast, faster than the change itself is happening.”
Burkina Faso might be an example of the worst case scenario of changes in the climate in Africa. It also provides the promise of a less Malthusian future.
One prominent example of how Burkina Faso is leading the way to engineer itself a better future is the donor-funded 2ie International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering in Ouagadougou. The university, the only western-accredited academic institution focused solely on water and environmental engineering in Africa, is training a new generation of engineers to meet the need for innovation. From its privet hedge-lined, modern campus that exudes internationalism in a city that is anything but, it grants bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes to more than 600 students from all over the continent every year.
For 2ie’s dean, Paul Ginies, Africa’s water shortage needs money to be thrown at it. But Africa also needs trained people to manage that influx of cash, he says. “The main problem here is the lack of capacity of governance and the under-capacity of companies to respond,” he said.
Ginies estimated one trained engineer should be in place to manage every 1 million dollars invested in a country’s infrastructure. In Burkina Faso, because of austerity measures imposed on the civil service, if there is not a major new recruitment drive natural attrition will mean there are no trained engineers in the Ministry of Agriculture and Water within 10 years, according to 2ie’s calculations.
The university also promotes home-grown technologies as key to making Africa climate-change-proof. One example currently being tested in Mali and Burkina Faso, involved issue villagers with individual taps with inbuilt counters, which they can attach to a communal standpipe. The individual taps mean each villager can be charged accurately for the water he has drawn, even while sharing a water point with other people.
The university hopes that systems like the metered taps will play a part in the commercialisation of water services in Africa by helping water companies find ways to make people pay for the increasingly scarce resources they consume.
“The reality is people are very proactive, reactive, and quick to develop. New technologies are coming quickly now, and the students are fast to learn,” Ginies enthused. “If you look at realities like this, you see Africa with different eyes, but we have to move away from the idea of technology transfers from the north. People want to develop capacity in line with the problems, that’s the new reality, and that’s why I am not pessimistic.”
Behind the university, dozens of other projects are lined up in what the university calls its showroom of ideas, projects all developed by students. Solar powered ovens, water heaters and pumps stand alongside elaborate, multiple tiered water treatment plants that use lettuce and naturally occurring nutrients to clean sewage water.
On the other side of the city, another institute, the regional centre for drinking water and sanitation (CREPA), exists solely for the development and diffusion of technologies like these around Burkina Faso and Africa. Cheick Tidiane Tandia, director general, is also enthused about the possibilities for technology. CREPA estimates 50 million CFA francs (US$100 million) worth of water is wasted in Burkina Faso every year just because water recycling technologies are not in place.
Overcoming Burkina Faso’s water challenges seemed possible looking at the enthusiasm and pragmatism on display at CREPA and 2ie. At the same time, however, the two institutions show to what extent the problems of a changing climate are going to be difficult to tackle.
Some of the technologies developed at 2ie to help villagers with adaptation have existed since the 1980s, yet few of them are in daily use anywhere. Why? “Partly money,” sighed Yacouba Konate, a research student at the 2ie university.
“But also, people are used to doing things the way they always have. For example, they go to the toilet wherever they want – they don’t have the mentality that a toilet is something they actually need to pay for. The problem always remains when something new is developed – how to get the population to accept it?”
Konate’s dream is that one day people in Burkina Faso will start buying water filters. “It amazes me that in Europe and the US people are so aware of their health that they will pay their own money to clean water which is already clean,” he rued.
Education and technology together
Education must go hand in hand with technological development, according to Tandia at CREPA. “There’s no point for example educating people on waste disposal, but not providing any bins. People will be aware, but not take it seriously.”
Educating Bukinabe about the benefits of clean water and sanitation is key to determining what will happen in the future. If they will pay for water and sanitation facilities to be piped to them they can be kept rooted in their current villages. If not, the potentially deadly north-south conflict that has got international observers so worried becomes more likely.
The government has rolled out what the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has lauded as one of the most sophisticated public-private partnerships in a water company in the developing world. However, the system is flawed, its employees say, in part because a lack of funds means outside the capital the company serves only a handful of people, and because further expansion is stymied by an unwillingness among ordinary people to pay for services they currently get for free.
“There are people who drink water from our clean wells and say they prefer the taste of the water they get themselves from artisan wells and rivers,” said Bocar Zongo, an official with the national water agency ONEA. “That means that in the villages there’s a problem of profitability and if you ask someone for money for giving him water, he will go straight back to the traditional sources instead.”
Burkina Faso is however one of the poorest countries in the world, and Zongo is quick to point out too that for many of the millions of people the UNDP says exist on less than US$1 per day, there is simply no choice but to use dirty water, whether they want to or not.
“In reality, water cannot always be profitable. Sometimes you have to forget about profit and think just about what is going to make sure people keep getting something.”
Of all the water-related projects being worked on in Burkina Faso, the smallest seems to be the one related to education. It is managed by Sow and his colleagues at the University of Ouagadougou’s Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS) who found in their surveying of low-level water-related conflicts that in many of the locations, aid agencies and the government had already installed simple technologies like wells, pumps and toilets meant to make places more sustainable for everyone who lived there.
Some projects had fallen into disrepair and villagers had done nothing to revive them. Others were never used at all because people either did not understand them, or did not want them.
“The banal is becoming important,” Sow said. “Take toilets for example. People don’t use them because it turns out from talking to them that they want compost for their fields, but you only learn that kind of thing from spending a long time sitting and talking with peasants.”
CESS is refurbishing projects in some places, and in others providing training to people, especially women, in how to make the best of what they already have got. The project has a budget of just US$250,000. “A lot of technology has been developed, but it has not been spread to people,” Sow said. “There have been plenty of interventions, but few of them involved people and gave them a sense of involvement and responsibility. For now, knowledge still exists here in a very small circle.”