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The sun is barely rising over Ouahigouya and already the circle of women is coming to life around the fountains of this big city in northern Burkina Faso. Some watch for the gurgling of the empty pipes, others hasten with their plastic canisters in front of the first trickles of water. We juggle between the pipe and her baby in the back. You hang a few jerry cans filled to the brim on your bike or pile them up in a cart, which you will still have to carry at arm’s length to your home.
Walk, fill, push. Every day, the same rickety ballet. In Ouahigouya, the capital of the North region, 180 km from the capital, the “drudgery of water”, reserved for women and children, has become an ordeal. Added to the drought is the influx of displaced people fleeing the violence in the competition for already scarce resources. In a few years, the city’s population doubled with the arrival of more than 140,000 refugees. In Burkina Faso, where nearly 40% of the territory is beyond the control of 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, Awa Sawadogo drags a large metal barrel on a cart with tires, in sector 1 of Ouahigouya. She only has a few meters to walk to the fountain in her neighborhood, but it is her third round trip of the day. In the ocher earthen courtyard of his rented house, the tap connected to the public distribution network has never worked.
” No choice “, replies this 40-year-old woman, trying to forget her back that hurts her and her wrist sore from an old fracture. They there are nineteen at home and the reserves are drying up quickly. She had to flee Barga, a village further north, on foot after a terrorist attack a year ago. Since her husband’s other wife stays at home because she too scared to go out. He wanders around town, looking for a job. When she is not busy looking for water, Awa Sawadogo sells sachets of spices in the street to be able to buy her barrels of water at 150 CFA francs (0.20 euros) for 200 liters and what to do meals. In Barga, water from the well in front of his yard was free. This former peasant woman never lacked enough to water her millet fields. In the city, “the land is too poor to cultivate”she regrets.
Ouahigouya is thirsty. To reach the limits and avoid queues that can last several hours, women use strategies. Some drop off their containers at night to reserve their place, before returning at dawn. The comings and goings drag on until the evening, encroaching on working time and, for the children, on their homework. Here, the poorest households only have access to an average of 7 liters of water per day and per person, whereas the international standard recommends a minimum of 15 liters in sites in emergency situations.
Faced with growing demand, the already dilapidated public network is saturated and wears out quickly. The National Office for Water and Sanitation (Onea), responsible for distribution in cities, is obliged to alternate supply days by sector. “It is crucial 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 Dikoume, water specialist with the NGO Solidarités International, which carries out infrastructure rehabilitation and repair operations in the region. In Ouahigouya, one of the last refuge areas in the region, the flow of displaced people is such that new arrivals are now forced to settle in neighborhoods not connected to the drinking water and electricity network.
“Waiting for hours at the pump”
In this semi-arid region, hard hit by the climate crisis, drought is eating away at the land. Hottest months, average temperatures exceed 40°C and the water reservoirs dry up. A few kilometers from Ouahigouya, the Goinré dam, the city’s main source of supply, remained dry from February to June, until the arrival of the first rains.
“Precipitation was so low in 2021 that the dam’s filling level was 40% lower than the level at the end of the previous season”explains Alphonse Sandwidi, technician at the regional directorate for water and sanitation in the North. The practice of market gardening creates additional pressure on the reserves subject to evaporation due to the high temperatures. And soil erosion contributes to the silting up of the dam.
To meet the needs, the pumping of groundwater is increasing and threatens groundwater already polluted in places by arsenic, used in neighboring mining sites. Private boreholes, rarely supervised, are multiplying. A year ago, the merchant Salifou Ganame decided to transform his cereal warehouse into a standpipe, to relieve his family and his neighborhood. It was no longer possible, “you had to wait hours at the pump, it often ended in arguments”he reports, saying that he has invested “several million francs” of his savings to drill 85m deep in his backyard.
In the face of chronic shortages, anger is mounting. Every year, groups of women demonstrate, empty cans in hand. “We have been calling on the authorities since 2015, the populations feel abandoned”castigates Tidiani Savadogo, spokesperson for Save the Yatenga, a movement created to denounce the general deterioration of living conditions.
In this landlocked country in the Sahel, more than 2.5 million people, or one in ten Burkinabés, are in a situation of water stress. The lack of access to drinking water fuels tensions between displaced populations and host communities, as well as conflicts between herders and farmers. Armed groups are stepping up targeted attacks against hydraulic installations. Destruction of generators and pumps, poisoning of water with fuel or with animal carcasses… From January to October, 58 water points, as well as essential infrastructure for supplying municipalities, were sabotaged in the country , impacting more than 830,000 people, according to data from humanitarian actors.
In the sky of Ouahigouya, helicopters parade. Many villages in the region have fallen under the control of the jihadists. It has become too dangerous for state agents to venture out by road to maintain the sites. In landlocked areas, the NGO Solidarités International is trying to airlift repair kits and filters to purify unsanitary water. Cases of water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea, one of the leading causes of infant mortality, are worsening.
The major connection project to the Guitti dam, 60 km away, is the ” Last hope “ authorities to supply the city and its surrounding villages in the years to come. But due to insecurity, the works, financed by the French Development Agency (AFD), which were due to end in 2023, have still not started. In the meantime, Barga, the village of Awa Sawadogo has become a ghost town.