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Poverty Times #2

Quenching thirst in the urban sprawl

“It is difficult to imagine a more hostile site to create a town! To the north, Nouakchott is being eaten away by the sand while to the south it is the salt that is gaining ground. And to make matters worse, there’s no water!” This is how Mohamed Salim Bamba, mayor of Teyaret, quickly sums up the situation. Teyaret, the northernmost of the nine districts that form the new urban community of Nouakchott, is particularly affected by water scarcity and rationing. By Philippe Rekacewicz

Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, sprang up out of the desert at the end of the 1950s and grew steadily until 1970. Then, following several years of drought and the ensuing rural exodus, its population increased tenfold over a period of thirty years. The city’s hydraulic equipment was designed to supply between 60 000 and 80 000 inhabitants in the 1980s and 1990s. These same installations now have to provide water for a population estimated at between 900 000 and 1 000 000 people, a large proportion of whom are concentrated in the outskirts of the city where there is neither water supply nor electricity. “The population is increasing much faster than our capacity to equip the new districts with water tanks and public standpipes,” complained an engineer from the Nouakchott Urban Community. “As a result, instead of focusing our efforts on renovating and completing the existing water supply system, all we have time for is dealing with emergencies and sending water trucks to the areas with the worst shortages. And even then we are a long way from meeting all the needs.”

“Urban thirst” is so severe that the authorities in some districts have introduced drastic measures to restrict water consumption. In particular, market gardening, an important resource for many households, has been banned, and the previously cultivated areas have now become huge rubbish tips. In the slums and shantytowns of Nouakchott, people are dying of thirst or of diseases caused by drinking water that is unfit for consumption, while just a few hundred metres away, the swimming pools in the two luxury hotels, the Novotel and Mercure (Groupe Accor, turnover of 7 billion euros in 2002) are filled with tens of thousands of litres of clear glistening water that is renewed regularly with no concern over supply. In a city where every single litre counts, it might be reasonable to ask how many tens of thousands of households could be supplied with this water reserved exclusively for splashing about in.

Nouakchott gets its water from the Trerza aquifer, situated at Idini, about fifty kilometres away along the road to Néma. A high pressure main carries the water as far as a principal water tower situated near the Presidential Palace. This is the nerve centre of the water distribution system for the entire city of Nouakchott. From here, water is distributed to four secondary water towers located in different parts of the urban area (two of which are reserved for the army and the Urban Community), as well as to large industrial, public and private users (factories, hotels, and certain public standpipes connected to the piped supply network, for example).

The few hundred public standpipes in Nouakchott are real meeting places for local residents. The standpipe is the “pulse” of the district, the starting point of the incessant parade of women and children carrying buckets and bowls, and of carters with their donkeys and barrels, coming and going in no apparent order to deliver water to the dwellings in the surrounding area. Few households are connected to Nouakchott’s piped water supply network. The drinking water supply system is rudimentary and essentially serves only the city centre and a few districts on the outskirts. With 90% of the population getting their water from water carts or trucks, it is not difficult to appreciate the strategic importance of standpipes and their managers, key players in the water distribution chain.

Water management, or at least the transport of water from its source to the city, is still a public service with a regulated pricing system. Although the State owns the system, it does not have the means to supply the entire population and has therefore transferred aspects of water standpipe management to private operators, both official and unofficial, thereby creating a great diversity of situations. Users can get their supplies themselves at the State standpipes managed by the “Commissariat à la lutte contre la pauvreté” (Commission on the Fight Against Poverty) or at private standpipes (where prices are generally higher), but also from people who are fortunate enough to be connected to the piped water supply system and who resell the water they receive. A lot of speculation goes on, and depending on the heat and water scarcity, prices during the year can vary by a factor of six, literally crippling the poorest families, who may have to spend half of their income on water. The increasing number of players in the distribution chain (who obviously have to earn a living) also helps to push up prices.

Standpipe managers, who work for the government or the private sector, have contracts with the Water Company (sne) and resell water on a wholesale or retail basis to inhabitants or to water cart owners. Private households connected to the piped network are considered to be “end users” although they resell the water at a profit. Water cart owners buy water from the standpipes and pay a special municipal tax that gives them the right to distribute water to homes. Water distribution is therefore a very complex business sector that generates a tremendous number of jobs. Standpipe managers and carters play an important social role and provide a valuable service, even though they themselves also indulge in speculation.

A major ongoing problem is that of hygiene. In theory, water is clean when it arrives at the public standpipes, but it is then carried to dwellings in recycled petrol or chemical containers. The water is often contaminated (by heavy metals or parasites), and once in homes is not necessarily purified with bleach as recommended by the Ministry of Health. The standpipes themselves are not maintained or “cleaned” as often as they should be, and over time the increasing number of puddles of stagnant water can become real breeding grounds for parasites. This water, which is unfit for human consumption and the primary cause of disease and mortality among children, is on average three to four times more expensive in the poor districts than in the well-to-do areas in the city centre.

The supply of water to public standpipes, whether via the piped network or from tankers, is also frequently disrupted. It is common for the piped supply system (and trucks) to break down, which explains why some water tanks and local water points sometimes remain dry for several days. Water arrives at the standpipes at a price varying between 20 and 30 oughiyas (0.10 euro) for a 200-litre barrel, and is then resold to water cart owners for 60 to 80 oughiyas (0.26 euro) who sell it at the market price. Price differences can be huge: 150 to 300 oughiyas (0.50 to 1 euro) when the supply is plentiful, and between 500 and 1 000 oughiyas in periods of extreme heat and water scarcity (1.6 to 3.3 euros). These huge price variations mean that families live in a state of constant anxiety, never knowing from one day to the next whether they will obtain water (either because there isn’t any, or because it is too expensive). Many do not have the financial means to store water in order to survive for three or four days while they find a source of supply. A household of 8 to 10 persons uses on average one 200-litre barrel every 24 hours (if they are “very economical” in their consumption), whereas normal water requirements are estimated to be around 45/50 litres per person per day.

Nouakchott lives in a permanent state of water scarcity. And yet, according to Mauritanian hydrogeologists the country’s water resources are sufficient to supply the entire population for very many years provided they are reasonably and more efficiently managed, and provided significant amounts of the 40 000 m3 of water extracted daily from the Idini groundwater aquifer do not disappear in a decaying network through evaporation, infiltration, or the numerous illicit connections upstream and downstream of the point where the water main arrives in Nouakchott.

Philippe Rekacewicz is a geographer, cartographer at unep/grid-Arendal in Norway and journalist at Le Monde Diplomatique in Paris, France.Translated by Sheila Carrodus.