In northern Mali – where cholera is endemic – maintaining the drinking-water supply to the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu is a major public-health issue. The lives of 115,000 people are at stake. This is no mean feat in an area that has been gripped by heavy fighting since the beginning of 2012. .
Abdoule-Karim Diomande, who coordinates water and habitat activities in the region, talks about the measures taken by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in cooperation with local residents and the authorities, and with the support of the Mali Red Cross.
What were the problems facing people living in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu?
Many people started to flee the region at the beginning of 2012. Public services – water, electricity and health care – ground to a halt when most of the staff qualified to run them left. Against this backdrop, providing safe drinking water is even more vital. Without it, diseases like cholera spread. So we stepped in to prevent a potentially disastrous situation in humanitarian terms.
What has the ICRC been doing?
No electricity to power pumping stations means no water. So the ICRC decided to provide fuel to keep the infrastructure running, thereby safeguarding the water supply. The fuel was also used to supply electricity to the three cities for a few hours each evening. We also helped maintain existing equipment, such as the Malian water board's generator, until the authorities were able to take over and equip the handful of engineers who remained.
Were you successful?
The inhabitants of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have been able to count on a reliable supply of drinking water. We were therefore able to avoid a cholera epidemic. There were a few outbreaks in some rural areas, but there too we took swift action by treating the water supply and repairing wells.
How did the ICRC manage to operate in places caught up in the fighting?
In Mali, like elsewhere, the ICRC works directly with local communities. When public-service employees left, civil society representatives set up emergency committees to keep the water and electricity networks running. So we mainly worked with community leaders. We were also in contact with both the Malian authorities and the armed groups to make sure we could pursue our activities in complete safety.
What is the ICRC doing elsewhere in Mali to provide access to safe drinking water?
The ICRC was already working in Mali before the current crisis. The Sahel region has an endemic drought problem, which is a source of potential conflict in countries where livestock herding is a way of life and depends on water resources. We were already drilling boreholes, installing wells and laying pipelines to extend urban water networks. Today, in addition to our work for the people of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, we are repairing wells used by herders and installing hand pumps in rural areas. And finally, we are helping people displaced by the fighting, particularly those who have sought refuge in Tinzawatene. We are building latrines and delivering drinking water to meet their needs until they can return home.