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Water treks grow longer, rougher

Villagers in Boura, Mauritania head out at sunrise for the almost daily search for water, a trip that takes them over longer distances starting in January until the rainy season arrives in June Peter Murimi/IRIN
As water captured in village wells during the 2008 rainy season runs out or dries up, residents in southern Mauritania are spending more time and travelling farther in their hunt for water. Water gatherers in Boura village, 400km southeast of the capital Nouakchott, told IRIN January means the start of longer water treks.

Herder Alioune Ould Modhi, 29, told IRIN it has become more difficult to find water when he digs his wells. “Before, two or three families could dig one well and there would be enough water for everyone. But now, you may have to dig 10 times to find enough water for those same families.”

Based on a 2008 Ministry of Environment study, water access in Maal – the region encompassing Boura – is a growing problem due to declining rainfall, desertification and the absence of a water distribution network.

Boura includes 13 encampments separated by sand dunes and the occasional desert shrub. Nearly all residents get their water from shallow hand-dug wells. The caked earth is dotted with craters showing attempts to strike water.

In the closest city 80km north, there are also water pumps operating on solar, electric, human and animal power.

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Anarchic settlements

Nomadic herders have historically passed through Maal en route south to the Senegal River. But severe droughts of the 1970s and 1980s forced many to abandon nomadic pastoralism; they have since formed or joined some 90 villages in Maal, including Boura.

Along a 3-kilometre walk to find water, herder Modhi pointed out wells he had dug. “There was water here - lots of water. Now there is still the well, but not much water.”

Modhi said starting in January he will go as far as 80km north to a lake in Maal or 80km south to Gorgol near the Senegal River.

The regional prefect, Sidi Ahmed Ould Mouebib, told IRIN an anarchic pattern of rural settlements has increased competition for water. “Villagers refuse to group together to share resources. These villagers did not take into account distance from water sources when they settled down; there was no rural planning.”

Mouebib added that resource demands far outstrip supply. “They each want their own schools, water pumps, health clinics. How do we explain to them there is only limited water that can provide for their needs, and only so far we can distribute it?”

Dirty water

Makeshift wells can be dangerous, and the water unsafe, said Mouebib. “While digging a well last year [in Maal], two people died when the sand caved in. And for those who do successfully dig their wells, the uncovered water is tainted by sand, dead animals, and anything that floats in.”

An October 2008 UN study on the economic cost of environmental degradation said only three percent of the desert country’s water is purified, and that is only in Nouakchott.

Rapid urbanisation has increased the risk of water pollution through faecal-tainted or recycled septic quality water, according to the study. 

Herder Alioune Ould Modhi digs a well in Boura, Mauritania
Photo: Phuong Tran/ IRIN
Herder Alioune Ould Modhi digs a well in Boura, Mauritania
The study estimated that treatment of waterborne diseases cost the government almost US$15 million a year, based on 2005 health data. Mauritania’s Ministry of Health reported in 2005 more than 120,000 cases of diarrhoea, 4,200 of cholera, and 17,000 of parasitic intestinal diseases. These cases resulted in more than 130 recorded deaths.

More coverage, but not access

In deciding where to build water sources, since the 1980s the government has set as a goal providing “modern” cement-walled enclosed wells and motorised water pumps for communities of at least 150 people, and a water distribution network for groups of at least 500.

Despite government efforts to increase water access dating to 1984 – with more than 3,500 completed or under-construction water sources as of 2004 according to the Ministry of Water and Energy – this coverage has not translated into access for all.

The UN has noted that some water projects have broken down for lack of qualified technicians to repair them, communities have moved or grown, and pumps have become obsolete when the required fuel to operate them became unaffordable.

Day’s work

In Boura, the herder in search of water ended up digging a new well. “If I find water here, I will use it and also share with my neighbour. If I don’t, I will look elsewhere as will my neighbour.”

He found water after digging three metres. Around sunset, Modhi filled plastic jugs with the muddy water, loaded them onto his donkey and started the trip home.

pt/ np

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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