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Water as a development resource

[21 March 2007 - 08h43]

Singing, dancing, music … It’s a day of celebration in Attantané! Monday 29 January 2007 is an historic day for this small, rural village in South Niger. For the first time ever, drinking water will spring forth from their brand new bore hole. And it will supply the whole community. With World Water Day only a matter of weeks away, it’s the start of a new era for this village.

In Niger, only 40% of the population have access to healthy water. That’s to say water that is fit for consumption, and less than 20 minutes’ walk away. Mind you: worldwide, more than a billion people consume unhealthy water every day. And 2.6 billion are without the most elementary sanitation facilities.

Men, women and children. The 2,000 inhabitants of Attantané gather around their new source of life. Around their mayor, their regional administrator, along with representatives from UNICEF and Volvic, a Danone group brand which, in France, markets bottled water.

In 2006, Volvic made a commitment to UNICEF to improve access to drinking water in the Maradi region of Niger. This project was given a rather curious name: 1 litre – 10 litres. This actually means that for every litre of water sold in France, 10 litres of drinking water will be made available in the Maradi region. As Grégory Pouchkine, Volvic’s field representative explains The idea was to equip 6 villages with drinking water supplies. It meant digging 30 wells. This will provide access to drinking water for 16,000 people for a period of 15 years. But the Volvic-UNICEF programme is not simply a matter of digging wells. It also means putting in place a whole system of organisation within the villages, in cooperation with local authorities to ensure that the wells are maintained and that job opportunities develop around them.

The operation will continue up to 2009. In each village, between three and five water points will be installed. In Attantané the first tap is turned on by French actress Véronique Jannot, who is backing the project.

This symbolic gesture really does mark the start of a new era for this rural village where access to water was a daily battle. A burden for the women and young girls who, traditionally, are responsible for performing this task. Before these water points were established, they spent on average, 5 to 6 hours a day collecting water. Hours that they could have spent looking after their children or, in the case of the younger girls, going to school.

On top of which, the only water they could collect, drawn from a well over 30 minutes’ walk from the centre of the village, was unhealthy. Thirty minutes’ walk carrying a 20 litre jar on their head, and very often with a baby on their back. Followed by several minutes waiting for their turn at the well. And another thirty minutes to walk back. And they had to do this 4 or 5 times a day, depending on size of their family.

Usually, the water is fit for drinking at source. But all the activity around the well makes it unclean: the presence of animals and the incessant to-ing and fro-ing of the ropes holding the buckets. Pulled by hand, these ropes trail along the ground before dropping into the bottom of the well … taking with them a whole host of parasites and dirt.

Which is how each year all over the world, water, which is so important to life, kills over a million and a half children. 4,200 every day! Most of these children come from developing countries, such as Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries where more than one in four infants dies before the age of five!

These children usually fall victim to bouts of diarrhoea which cause or aggravate malnutrition. Not forgetting that lack of drinking water also encourages transmission of infectious diseases … such as pneumonia, which alone kills 2 million children every year.

According to the WHO and UNICEF, almost 9 out of 10 tens deaths caused by diarrheas are associated with the consumption of unhealthy water or poor hygiene conditions. Between now and 2015 the target set by the UN is to reduce by half the number of people without access to drinking water.

Programmes to provide access to drinking water and sanitation are in place in many other countries as well as Niger – in Burkina Faso, the Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

For example, in these countries less than half the rural population has access to drinking water. So, in December last year, an EU–UNICEF cooperative scheme was set up to provide 1.4 million Ethiopians with water within the next five years.

In Côte d’Ivoire, another programme is in place, aimed at maintaining and improving access to drinking water in 4 of the country’s regions. The objective is to repair over 1,000 pumps that have broken down and are in a state of neglect.

In UNICEF’s Middle East North Africa region, Morocco, Egypt and the Syrian Arab Republic have shown the most striking progress during the last 15 years in terms of access to sanitation facilities. All these countries now have a coverage rate of between 70% and 90%.

But to return to Niger… A few hundred kilometres away, a revolution is also taking place in the village of Guidan Gazobi. The turning point came with the installation of a well in 1992. It has had consequences that have gone far beyond the simple provision of water points close to dwellings…

First of all there are the consequences for health … Child health in particular, as diarrheas have practically disappeared. But also for women’s health, as maternal mortality has dropped considerably.

And looking beyond the sanitation aspect, it is important to note the extent to which the arrival of water has freed up time in women’s lives. Time they can now devote to other domestic chores, to looking after their children, to going out into the fields, to harvesting and grinding millet. Time too to prepare meals. And time to devote to education.

The young girls too have seen their lives completely changed. They now have time to go to school. A school that also has its own supply of drinking water and where lessons in hygiene are taught.

Pupils learn the importance of washing their hands with soap and water each time they use the toilets. And also the importance of washing their hands repeatedly while preparing meals – each time in fact that they move from one type of food to the next.

Not forgetting that for a child who has had no choice but to drink unhealthy water on a daily basis and to use broken or dirty toilets, learning these simple habits can be extremely difficult. So latrines have also been provided. On one side for the boys and on the other for the girls, to ensure everyone’s privacy .

But as UNICEF representatives never tire of stressing, “it is not enough simply to install latrines. You have to explain to people how to use them”. Which is why health education policies have also been put in place to raise awareness among the population, of issues such as water and environmental hygiene.

This has led to major changes in health, education and the economy. In the villages, people pay for their water. This is the start of a whole economic process with the creation of skilled jobs such as water engineers, builders, water user associations, etc. The amount paid by the locals is nominal. Each pays according to his or her means. But as Arsène Azandossessi, UNICEF representative at the Maradi Bureau explains, If people don’t pay for water there’s no money to pay for repairs if there’s a breakdown. I don’t believe that selling water makes it inaccessible. On the contrary, it makes it possible to continue sinking new wells in the future.

Once water is laid on, the development of the village begins. As soon as water arrives the village becomes more stable and investment starts. On top of which we are going to bring in new activities. We are going to improve health and education, we are going to help women to free up more of their time. We are going to start a certain number of income-generating activities. We are going to take action against malnutrition, help women to identify malnourished children, set up cereal banks to help the community to get through difficult patches. So it’s really a whole package with water as the point of entry.

The next challenge facing UNICEF in Niger, as in many other countries, is developing sanitation systems. In rural Niger only 2% of the population benefit from sanitation. It’s a new stage, and one that will once again require time and money.

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