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Easier access to clean water offers a lifeline in Gambian-Senegalese border communities

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Temporary wells used to be the community’s main source of water. © IOM/Miko Alazas

Forty kilometres from The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, and less than 10 kilometres from the Senegalese border, the small coastal town of Gunjur, population 14,000, is a main fishing hub. Kajabang, one of the town’s eight kabilos (districts), is perched on an Atlantic shoreline dotted with colourful fishing boats managed by mixed crews of Gambians and Senegalese.

There, in 30 degrees, Fatou Jatta now enjoy a walk to the immigration office, knowing a newly sunk borehole there gives her worry-free access – for the first time in her life – to clean water, which is also used to wash the day’s catch.

“We used to rely on wells,” says Fatou, “but this is a very sandy area. Wells would normally run dry or cave in after a week, and we would have to keep digging new ones.”

Lamin Keita, a member of the Village Development Committee (VDC), recalls the previous challenge. “To have water for drinking, washing and cleaning, some community members would need to walk a few kilometres to a borehole in a nearby village.”

Access to clean water became an even graver problem when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We received support from some organizations to put up handwashing buckets,” says Fatou. The buckets, however, still needed to be refilled with clean water – and when a community already has limited access to water for basic necessities, handwashing becomes a lower priority.

In support of the national COVID-19 response plan, and with financial support from the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) sank boreholes in four communities along the Gambian-Senegalese border. Aside from Gunjur in the West Coast Region, boreholes were erected in Fatoto, Upper River Region, and Misera and Tabanding, Central River Region.

The initiative aimed to strengthen access to basic services in communities with high cross-border movement and better position these communities to implement COVID-19 prevention measures.

“Far from urban areas, these border communities often lag behind in water infrastructure,” says Simeonette De Asis, IOM’s Migration Health Officer in The Gambia. “Yet, they have a long history of informal cross-border movement and trade, which can often place communities at greater risk of transmission. This signifies a great need for improved sanitation to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

The benefits of a new borehole are already being felt by the residents of Kajabang in Gunjur. Aside from making handwashing easier, clean water has been vital in kickstarting the community’s socioeconomic recovery from the pandemic.

“The closure of markets really affected our businesses,” says Fatou, recalling the peak of pandemic-related restrictions. With markets reopened, fishing communities closer to the capital had an advantage with their better access to clean water. The new borehole has allowed Fatou and others involved in Gunjur’s fishing industry to clean and sell more fish at a faster rate. Furthermore, the borehole has also been critical to maintaining the community ice plant to preserve fish.

The town’s community gardens – a key supplement to fishing as a main source of income – have also returned to life. With access to clean water, Fatou and the rest of the community can grow pepper, tomato, corn and other vegetables more consistently.

Not only have the living conditions for Gambians improved, but the hundreds of migrants embedded in the community have benefitted. Senegalese migrants from nearby come to fish seasonally, living in Gunjur for months at a time. Migrants come from as far as Guinea and Mali, looking for work, such as boatbuilding.

As economic activity resumes across Gunjur, the borehole provides a glimmer of hope in promoting alternatives to irregular migration.

“We used to see many young people go to Mali, to Algeria, to Libya,” says immigration officer Lamin Jatta. With the borehole making various forms of work easier, residents hope that young people will consider capitalizing on local livelihoods rather than taking dangerous risks trying to get to Europe.

The morning sun rages on, and Gunjur continues bustling with life. With three full containers of clean water, Fatou walks back to meet the women she works with, and they prepare to start cleaning the catch of the day.

In this small, West African coastal town, one borehole serves as a reminder that – where access to clean water is taken for granted in many parts of the world – it can be a lifeline to those at the margins.

This story was written by Miko Alazas, IOM’s Media and Communications Officer in The Gambia.