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Story Publication logo December 1, 2011

Hand Pumps: A Losing Battle for Ivory Coast?

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After recent political violence divided communities, some in Ivory Coast look to local water...

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The hand pump projects have proved only a short-term success. Questions are being raised about what else might be done to improve widespread access to clean water. Image by Selay Marius Kouassi, Ivory Coast, 2011.

"West! It's not the place to go man, not now," said my friend N'Gali Innocent, when I told him I was headed to western Ivory Coast. "Even the head of state, the man with the heaviest secured motorcade in the country has just postponed his trip to west."

President Alassane Ouattara's spokesperson had announced on state media the postponement of the president's scheduled trip to the western region due to "unforeseen circumstances and for logistical reasons." The issue fueled rumors about the security situation in that part of the West African nation.

The time was 5:20 a.m. when a driver picked me from my home in Abidjan. The drive was smooth. No traffic. The city was still asleep. The early morning cold breeze lashed at my face as the driver sped away. A couple of minutes later we stopped at "Gesco" – a police checkpoint at the northern exit of the city.

Roadside hawkers besieged our car, brandishing small plastic water bags. "Pure natural water," "sane water," "certified water," I read on the plastic bags. "Certified by whom?" I wondered. The regulation of private companies operating in the water sector is still problematic.

The laws enacted to control the sector have proven ineffective. Some top government officials are suspected of being involved in the business. "These little roadside water sellers are just the tip of the iceberg," my driver told me before attending to the soldier who was about to verify the car papers.

"How much do you have for my breakfast?" the uniformed man, who was wearing tattered woolly gloves and hanging an AK-47 over a shoulder, gently asked the driver. We were let go after the breakfast affair was over. Road bribes are chronic in Ivory Coast. The Chamber of Commerce head Jean-Louis Billon had declared that the total yearly amount paid in such bribes may be up to $600 million, which is equivalent to more than two percent of the country's economy. Efforts are being made by government to solve the problem, but a deep-rooted practice can't disappear overnight.

After a 10-hour drive, we arrived in Man, a quiet city surrounded by 18 mountains.

Man, a onetime thriving destination, is now a shadow of itself. Many homes remain abandoned. The major tarred roads that have not been maintained for more than a decade were now covered with laterite. The city has been greatly affected by the 2002 civil war. NGOs providing assistance to the impoverished local population are easily recognizable in their white jeeps, plying the open lanes back and forth and giving the town a deceptively lively atmosphere.

It's not easy to get a hotel room in Man because NGO personnel usually book rooms for long stays. A friend had made arrangements for me. But at my hotel the water pressure was too low. And when I complained, a woman at the reception told me, "Take this bucket and fill it quickly, in the case."

"In the case of what?" I asked.

"In the case there is water cut. It frequently happens here," she replied.

After waiting about 20 minutes to fill an average-size bucket, I went to bed asking myself what the situation would be like in remote villages around Man.

The next day, I visited a nearby village called Teapleu, and a couple of other villages. I must say how impressed I was by the water committees tasked with the management of hand water pumps in these villages. They were composed of people from different ethnic background and local mechanics. "Great," I said to myself. But a number of pumps were not functioning. Why?

I discovered later that most of the mechanics are vehicle repairmen. The best only have minimal know-how on maintaining water pumps, and some know nothing at all. The core of the problem is that spare parts for the pumps are manufactured outside the country, making their acquisition difficult for the locals. And NGOs very often ignore spare parts that come from China.

I remember the discussion I had with the representative of an international NGO in Abidjan before my trip to west.

"Funders who give us money to implement hand pump projects usually give us a list of suppliers along with the contract," he told me. "We are not allowed to get spares from other companies. We're compelled to buy spares with only the listed companies in order to maintain or repair broken hand pumps. It's expensive to import these spares. They cost huge money. We can't buy and import just a few pieces of spares. So we wait; when we get a huge number of broken pumps then we can put in an order."

The village water committees collect a token fee from users in order to purchase spare parts when the pumps go bad. But their savings can barely afford the spares. The money collected is far below the requested amount to purchase new equipment. The practice of preventive maintenance instead of waiting for problems to develop could help sort the problem out.

Save the Children staff members are working to improve water supplies in some of these areas. But as there is still increasing demand and slow response, villagers have returned to water wells for domestic use, with the risks of waterborne diseases.

We hear very few success stories of hand pumps after three or even two years of use, not only in the west but in other regions of the country as well. The hand pump projects have proved only a short-term success. This concern raises a number of important issues that NGOs, funders, government authorities, water policymakers and beneficiaries on the ground need to consider before deciding whether hand pumps are a wise choice for community water supply. They could look at the construction of water towers as part of the solution.

As I pack up ready to return to Abidjan, Denis Badi, the traditional chief of Teapleu village expressed a serious grievance: "Whenever you get back to Abidjan and meet these authorities who never visit us to know our problems, please let them know that our lives are at stake here. We can't get clean water. We need them to keep their promise and act now, instead of delivering colorful speeches. We need water towers."


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