CAMEROON: The aesthetics of water

Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Since the 1990s when the Cameroon government stopped providing free water in urban centres, most of the population of the commercial capital Douala have had to resort to digging their own wells, which are often contaminated. But four years ago, a shiny futurist-looking structure sprang up in Bessengué Akwa, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, and it is more than just a source of reliable water.

"The structure is truly beautiful," Rose Edouka, a resident of Bessengué Akwa told IRIN. "It has brought life to our neighbourhood."

The water fountain is unique. It sits under a polished metal frame covered by a bright green awning designed with the idea of a butterfly in mind. People go there not just to get water but to congregate, Edouka said. "It is something we are proud of in our community and we make sure it is well maintained."

Before construction commenced Cameroonian architect Danièle Diwouta-Kotto met with the community and asked people to envisage what the perfect water fountain would look like, Paulain Tchuenbou, a member of Doual'art, a local organisation promoting art and urban development which helped facilitate the meetings, told IRIN.

"People told the architect they wanted a water fountain that could serve as a public attraction and meeting place," he said. The architect produced various designs from which the community chose.

"We were consulted on every step which makes us now feel that we own the fountain and are responsible for it," the chief of Bessengué Akwa, Maurice Eyango Madengue told IRIN.

How it works

Inside the structure are benches and a small general store whose manager also manages the water.

"I make a little money from selling water as well as a little more from selling goods in my store," the manager, Esther Mateo told IRIN. "Everyone benefits - I get to make a living and the community gets constant access to water."

She sells the water for 1 CFA franc a litre (less that a third of 1 US cent). That is half the price water cost the community before the fountain had been built. "The nearest other fountain was more than a kilometre from here and sometimes we would go there and it would be closed," Edouka said.

Revenue from the new fountain is divided in three, with one part going to the manager, one part going to the water company and one part going to a local committee set up by the community to maintain the fountain.

"I hope they will find money to light the fountain," a resident David Ndame told IRIN. "Then it would be a great place to hang out at night."

Not-so-cheap imitations

Building the fountain cost around 2.6 million CFA francs (US$6,200) with funding from the European Union and the French Institut Régional de Coopération Développement in the region of Alsace.

The project was so successful that the World Bank decided to finance two similar fountains nearby, though these cost 4.5 million CFA francs (US$10,750) each and almost two years later they are yet to produce a single drop of water.

"The delays are worrying," an urban specialist for the World Bank Chantal Reliquet, told IRIN by email from Washington DC, but she added the Bank cannot be held responsible as "it did not manage the project only financed the [municipal] government".

The engineer in charge of the project for the municipal government, Simon Ekotto, said the problem is communications, particularly between the water company and the community. "There has been a lot of misunderstanding," particularly with reference to billing, he said.

But for the chief of Bessengué Akwa, Eyango Madengue, the problem is that the government failed to consult the community. "And I can't say we are optimistic that these fountains will ever become operational unless the community can take control."

The chairperson of Doual'art, Marylin Douala Bell, said the World Bank project was so ill-conceived that the Bank might as well have thrown its money out the window.

"We tried to warn them but they wouldn't listen," she said. "An essential element of a project like this is for the community to have responsibility and to be given the capacity to take control of all stages, from conception to management."