MAN, 20 April 2011 (IRIN) - Hundreds of thousands of urban residents in Côte d'Ivoire could be hit by drinking water shortages in the coming weeks, as the post-electoral violence interrupted the supply of chemicals used at treatment plants throughout the country.
The risk of shortages is particularly worrying given the cholera outbreak in neighbouring Ghana, with more than 6,000 cases to date, said François Bellet, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) specialist in the UN Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) West and Central Africa regional office.
Between January and March Côte d'Ivoire's main city Abidjan saw at least 515 cases of cholera, with 12 deaths, according to Kadjo Yao of UNICEF's WASH team in Abidjan. It is unclear whether cholera is still infecting people, as surveillance systems are down, the agency says.
"The situation [of drinking water supply] is extremely uncertain - we're on a razor's edge," said Bellet, who is currently in Côte d'Ivoire.
UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are working with the water company SODECI - which provides water in urban centres - on immediate and mid-term solutions to avoid shortages. ICRC helped SODECI deliver treatment products to parts of Abidjan during the severe violence which has paralysed the city in recent weeks, and is helping move needed chemicals to plants around the country.
Treatment chemicals running out
The main western town of Man is one of the urban centres facing shortages. The current stock of treatment chemicals will last till the end of April, according to SODECI's western regional office.
Man has about 14,000 households connected to the water supply network, but for each household one must reckon on at least 15 users, according to Tondossama Broulaye, SODECI regional director for the west. Beyond that, tap water is resold, UNICEF water experts noted.
"Our supplier in Abidjan closed when the crisis hit and the banks closed in January," SODECI's Tondomassa told IRIN. Normally treatment chemicals are shipped to Côte d'Ivoire from Europe and distributed throughout the country via the Abidjan-based supplier.
Tondossama said SODECI's logistics base in Abidjan's Adjamé District was ransacked during the post-electoral violence. "There is not a single computer left," he said.
SODECI's Tondossama said if chemical supplies are not replenished in time the company would have to start rationing water, so consumers would have piped water for about six or seven hours a day instead of the normal 22.
UNICEF is looking at how to expedite the needed products - primarily chlorine and sulphates - through the newly opened port in San Pedro, but transport and security problems remain significant challenges.
Recently a truck driver delivering a cable for a water plant in the western town of Duékoué was highjacked en route.
Chlorine is highly flammable and so the large quantities needed cannot be transported by aircraft.
As in immediate measure UNICEF has begun regular treatment of household wells and education campaigns to show people how to treat water at home with locally available means, including bleach and solar disinfection. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=79172 ] UNICEF treated wells in Bouaké at the end of March for some 250,000 people, Bellet said.