Your Story

Water Scarcity in the Sahel

By Meena Bhandari

Even the vegetation in Bani Bangou town, south-western Niger, looks like it is in an epic battle for survival. The spiky thorn bushes with their defensive formations seem to stab the hot air in protest at the absence of rain, while the imposing Baobab trees look curiously like they have buried their heads in the sand for protection - their bare branches looking like roots exposed to the parched winds.

Against this backdrop, Hawa, a young mother, balances a weighty plastic jerrycan on her head, kicking up the orange earth as she walks back across her well-trodden but unmarked path. She has drawn this water from the wadi, a seasonal watercourse, which is now scorch-dry, by scratching a hole in the riverbed to release a trickle of water, full of dirt and grit. As she walks home, with hands caked in dried mud, she sings to keep pace. This twice daily journey takes Hawa across 4 miles of unfriendly bush-land. Water, and more accurately water-stress, defines her daily existence. Hawa's daily routine is strikingly typical of women and girls all over the Africa, and indeed the developing world, whose lives revolve around the daily treks for water, often at the expense of earning an income or attending school.

The fight for survival may add to the romantic ambiguity of a desert, but the truth, especially where water is concerned, is a more complex and serious reality. The Sahel region of Africa (the geographic zone that stretches 2,500 miles across arid shrub-land, south of the Sahara desert) has been subject to low, and highly variable rainfall patterns (on average around 100 – 600mm a year). People have adapted to the harsh environment for generations.

Less than half the population of the Sahel has access to water while its demand increases with rapid population growth. The resultant threat to health and livelihoods is set to become worse with desertification likely to increase by 5–8% by the 2080s. As the climate becomes more variable, the dichotomy of water stress and water abundance become more apparent; when it rains here it can fall with such force, and be so intensively localised, that it can destroy crops and cause flooding. Managing this water dichotomy has to be part of the solution; 'good' rainfall and 'bad' rainfall years necessitate water management to reduce shortfalls.

While evidence for international water wars is not substantiated, there are increased local skirmishes and disputes over increasingly scarce resources in West and Central Africa. Non-profit organizations have worked in the region for more than fifty years and their strategy has been to dig wells and construct pumps, focusing on water supply. However, digging more wells or providing taps are not by themselves the answer because the groundwater in the Sahel may not sustain increasing demands. Agencies and Governments are realizing they need to focus on the demand side in such resource scarce locations; there are lessons for the developing world too. Moreover, climate change models do not give country or local level pictures, making local water and environmental monitoring vital.

In Bani Bangou the non-profit agency Oxfam has started a project with people like Hawa so she becomes an active member of a community based water group that collectively coordinates water usage. Water management starts with gathering accurate information of water availability, and then planning how to maximise its use. St John Day, Water Resource Manager for Oxfam in Niger explains: "We're getting the community to install simple groundwater loggers so they can measure and monitor how much water is available season-to-season underground. They also record rainfall levels, and analyse if they can improve rainwater usage and irrigation systems. Communities take decisions collectively, rather than on a household by household basis, for example deciding which crops could be grown based on water actually available, not on assumptions of supply."

Oxfam believes this approach can help reduce potential conflict over water. "Rather than competing for limited resources, people here cooperate once they can make informed decisions," says Day. Oxfam enables communities to capture, store and recycle water better, using local sustainable technology and irrigation techniques to maximise supply.

4,500 people die worldwide everyday from inadequate access to safe water and sanitation. Focusing on increasing supply is the natural response to Hawa's story, but this has to be matched by empowering Hawa and managing collective demand to avoid future water stress and conflicts. Water resource management is a strategy that should be considered across the world.