Thursday, December 09, 2004

The importance of access to clean water

I live in a region of upstate New York that has abundant water. There are tons of lakes and rivers around here. We get a good amount of snow in the winters and a fair amount of rain in the spring (and this summer, as well, when it rained nearly every day). We almost never have water restrictions like they do in the western US. I can take long showers and don't have to boil drinking water. People can water their lawns and fill their pools.

This appeal in the UK Independent reminds me that not everyone can take water for granted. Mali is in the ever expanding Sahel, a semi-arid region in West Africa that separates the Sahara desert from the coastal rain forests. Except the Sahel is becoming increasingly arid and is threatened by full-fledged desertification.

The Independent notes that For years, the water-carriers of Mali have walked for miles through the brush for a drink that can kill. Malaria, from mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water, and water-borne diseases such as cholera are almost endemic in the country.

Hamidou Maïga, the representative of the British charity WaterAid in Mali, tells of a village near the border with Burkina Faso he visited a few years ago, where the water was infected with guinea worm in the rainy season. The worms enter the body through the water, and can grow up to 3ft long then break through the skin, often through the feet. Some victims have more than 20 worms erupting painfully from their bodies... Mr Maïga says the solution to eradicating guinea worm was simple: clean water. "Four years later, a standpipe was put in. Now, there are no cases of guinea worm."

Part of the problem is related to demographic shifts. WaterAid believes nearly half of the 12 million population of Mali lack access to safe water, and often have no choice but to drink from polluted sources such as unprotected wells and ponds. Nafadji, on the north-western outskirts of Bamako, used to have one waterpoint for 4,500 people. Pressure has increased on the supply as people move closer to the towns and build "temporary" houses which eventually become permanent. Working with the city water board, a community health centre and a non-governmental organisation, WaterAid now provides water, sanitation and hygiene to four districts of Bamako. One waterpoint now serves 500 inhabitants in Nafadji.

Sanitation is another issue, especially where lack of water makes it difficult simply to wash your hands. In Mali, only 15 per cent of the 12 million population have adequate sanitation facilities. In some villages, only the head man has a walled latrine. Traditional latrines are unspeakable. In rural areas, almost a quarter have no set lavatory. [one woman] says: "There was often dirty water in the street, so we ended up walking in stagnant water. Before we had proper latrines, the old ones would sometimes overflow so we were walking in the runoff from the latrines too."

Even when I was in Guinea, I took water for granted. I lived in the southeastern rain forest, where it rained every day for eight months of the year. My village was fortunate enough to have a deep-borne water pump (installed by the German development agency GTZ); villagers told me sickness had gone down significantly in the few years (at the time) since the pump was installed. In other regions of Guinea, notably the northeastern part that borders Mali, water is not quite so plentiful and access to clean water not so easy.

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