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The sun is barely rising over Ouahiguia, and around the fountains of this large city in the north of Burkina Faso, a circle of women is already coming to life. Some watch the gurgling of empty pipes, others hurry with their plastic canisters before the first trickles of water. We juggle between a pipe and her baby in the back. You’ll hang a few brimming canisters on your bike or dump them in a cart that you still have to carry at arm’s length to your house.
Go, fill, push. Every day the same shattered ballet. In Wahiguya, the capital of the Northern Region, 180 km from the capital, “garbage water”, designed for women and children, has become an ordeal. Adding to the drought is an influx of displaced people fleeing the violence in the struggle for already scarce resources. Within a few years, the city’s population doubled with the arrival of more than 140,000 refugees. In Burkina Faso, where almost 40% of the territory is not controlled by the authorities, jihadist groups are increasingly using thirst to besiege villages and scare people away.
11:00. Under the dry and dusty breath of the Harmattan, Ava Sawadogo drags a large metal barrel on a cart with tires, in Sector 1 of Wahiguya. She is only a few meters from the fountain in her neighborhood, but this is her third day trip around the world. The ochre-and-earth yard of his rented house never had a faucet connected to the public distribution network.
” No choice “, this 40-year-old woman replies, trying to forget about her back, which hurts her, and her wrist, which hurts from an old fracture. They are there are nineteen of them at home, and the reserves are quickly drying up. She had to flee from Barga, a village further north, on foot after a terrorist attack a year ago. Because her husband’s other wife stays at home because she too scared to go out. He roams the city in search of work. When she is not looking for water, Ava Sawadogo sells spice bags on the street so that she can buy barrels of water for 150 CFA francs (0.20 euros) for 200 liters and what to cook for a meal. In Barga, water from the well in front of his yard was free. This former peasant woman never lacked watering the millet. In the town, “The land is too poor to cultivate”she regrets.
Wahiguya is thirsty. To reach the limit and avoid queues that can last several hours, women use strategies. Some leave their containers at night to reserve a spot before returning at dawn. Comings and goings are delayed until the evening, taking away working time, and children and homework. Here, the poorest households only have access to an average of 7 liters of water per day per person, while the international standard recommends at least 15 liters in emergency locations.
Faced with growing demand, the already dilapidated public network is oversaturated and is rapidly wearing out. The National Water and Sanitation Authority (Onea), which is responsible for distribution in cities, is required to rotate the days of supply by sector. “It is extremely important to maintain good pressure in the terminals to avoid queues. But the more you pump, the more the water table drops and the flow decreases.”, explains Thierry Dicum, water specialist for the non-governmental organization Solidarités International, which works to restore and repair infrastructure in the region. In Waiguya, one of the last refuges in the region, the flow of displaced persons is such that newcomers are now forced to settle in areas not connected to drinking water and electricity.
“Waiting hours at the gas station”
In this semi-arid region, hard hit by the climate crisis, drought is eating away at the land. Hottest months, average temperatures exceeds 40°C and water bodies dry up. A few kilometers from Wahigui, the Goinre Dam, the city’s main source of supply, remained dry from February to June until the first rains came.
“There was so little rainfall in 2021 that the dam fill level was 40% lower than the level at the end of the previous season.”explains Alfons Sandvidi, a technician at the Regional Water Supply and Sanitation Authority in the North. Horticulture practices put additional stress on stocks subject to evaporation due to high temperatures. And soil erosion contributes to the silting of the dam.
Groundwater pumping is on the rise to meet demand and threatens already locally arsenic-contaminated groundwater used by neighboring mines. Private wells, rarely monitored, are multiplying. A year ago, merchant Salifu Ghaname decided to turn his cereal warehouse into a column to make life easier for his family and neighbors. It was no longer possible “I had to wait for hours at the gas station, often it ended in quarrels”he reports, saying that he has invested “several million francs” from his savings to drill 85 meters deep in his backyard.
Anger builds up in the face of chronic lack. Every year, groups of women hold empty cans in demonstrations. “We have been appealing to the authorities since 2015, the population feels abandoned”criticizes Tidiani Sawadogo, spokesperson for Save the Yatenga, a movement created to denounce the general deterioration of living conditions.
In this landlocked country of the Sahel, more than 2.5 million people, or one in ten people in Burkina Faso, experience water shortages. Lack of access to drinking water fuels tensions between displaced people and host communities, as well as conflicts between pastoralists and farmers. Armed groups are stepping up targeted attacks on waterworks. The destruction of generators and pumps, the poisoning of water with fuel or animal carcasses… From January to October, 58 water points were sabotaged in the country, as well as the necessary infrastructure to supply municipalities, affecting more than 830,000 people, according to humanitarian organizations.
Helicopter parade in the sky of Wahiguya. Many villages in the region came under the control of jihadists. It has become too dangerous for government agents to take to the roads to service facilities. In landlocked areas, the NGO Solidarités International is attempting to airlift repair kits and filters to purify unsanitary water. Cases of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, one of the main causes of infant mortality, are on the rise.
The main connection project with the Gwitti Dam located 60 km away is ” Last hope “ authorities to supply the city and its surrounding villages in the coming years. But due to insecurity, work funded by the French Agency for Development (AFD), which was supposed to be completed in 2023, has not yet begun. Meanwhile, Barga, the village of Awa Sawadogo, has been turned into a ghost town.