MALI: The trickle-down effect of water scarcity

Friday, March 23, 2007
In the village of Toroli in Mali, 10-year-old Amadou waits for his father while sitting on the family's camel instead of going to Koranic school. As his father, Brahima Barry, a Fulani shepherd, explains, Amadou has to help the family gather water. The well is located several kilometres from their home.

"We have to go to the well to get water for both the family and the animals," Barry said. "If water was more accessible, it would change a lot of things in my life."

Because of the water scarcity in Toroli, 200km from the regional capital, Mopti, Barry's son misses school to help transport the water back home on the camel during several trips. Poor water quality affects the family's health and its finances if someone falls sick from contaminated water and needs to go to a clinic.

At least half of all deaths in Mali are caused by diarrhoea and malnutrition-related causes, according to a demographic and health survey commissioned by the government in 2005.

The water problem - its scarcity and poor quality - is repeated across West Africa, especially in the arid countries of the Sahel region, including Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. The United Nations on Wednesday is marking World Water Day to call attention to issues related to water. 'Coping with Water Scarcity' is the theme for this year.

"Finding water takes most of people's time," said Mathias Diassana, head doctor of the health centre in Koro, 150km from Mopti. "Often women spend more than five hours [per day] getting water for domestic use" while men spend time gathering water for livestock.

There are two traditional wells in Toroli and two water pumps, which have better quality. This water, however, is not free. Purchasing water poses a heavy burden on many Malians, most of whom survive on less than US$2 per day, according to the United Nations.

"The people don't have money to pay for the water they are consuming and they also have no money to contribute for the construction of deep wells, because it is very expensive," said Fayiri Togola, technical adviser for the UN children's agency (UNICEF) in the Mopti region.

With water so scarce in the 79,000 sq km of the Mopti region, people look for whatever sources they can find. The water table is usually more than 60 meters deep and some water points have dried up altogether because of the drought. As a result people look to water sources that are easier to access.

"In this region, there are many places that do not have water points, even some health centres do not have water," said Diassana. "This is why people...are getting water from natural ponds and this is not good - it brings public health problems."

In the village health center in Koro, Diassana said that diarrhoea is the most common ailment after malaria.

With the support of UNICEF, health workers at centres in Mopti are trying to educate the local residents to change their behaviour.

"To eliminate the water problem people have to be taught techniques to purify water," said Togola. School children who learn these techniques can help bring about change, he said.

Toroli resident Amadou Mtogo and 10 other people gathered in their village about six years ago to discuss their community's health and hygiene's problems. As a result of those discussions and measures taken to improve water quality, infant mortality dropped 12 percent in the last five years, said Togola. However, people still seek water from contaminated sources, which continues to spread illness.

"You can educate people about good behaviour but if there is no clean water this problem can't be solved," Togola said. "How do you want people to change if they don't have the necessary water to drink and practice good hygiene? How do you want them to send their children to school if don't have the means to survive"?
Author: IRIN
Source: IRIN