Mauritania: Turning wheat into water in the Sahara

Originally published
Coumba Thiam raises a toast to World Water Day, and to World Vision, with a tea glass of sparkling H20. For the first time in her life, this Mauritanian woman has clean drinking water available just steps from her home. And it's affordable. While many people take clean water for granted, Coumba appreciates just how precious it is. Water - and the lack of it - is the most critical problem in Mauritania, a country that is 75 per cent desert.
Coumba lives in Sebkha, a desperately poor slum in the capital, Nouakchott, where the water shortage is especially acute. Every morning, she used to join the long lines of women and children gathered at the neighbourhood water point installed by the government. There is rarely enough water at these "fountains", as they are called here. The government can't keep up with water demand which has increased by 12 per cent in the last two years in this growing city of 800,000. The women are jostled and pushed by donkey cart drivers who are filling up rusty 200-litre oil barrels. For a grossly inflated price, they will deliver this water to slum dwellers who live far from the nearest fountain. Potable water is an unaffordable luxury for most Mauritanians who earn less than a dollar a day. They consume as little as possible, even when the temperature surpasses 40 degrees as it often does.

Water from the fountain taps is not only expensive, it's dangerous. Donkey dung churns with run-off water, sand, and litter to form a stinking muck around the fountain. The goop coats the women's yellow plastic containers as they fill them, contaminating the water their children will drink.

Coumba is relieved that she's no longer dependant on the local fountain. In 2001, World Vision constructed an 8,000 cubic metre water storage cistern in her kebbe (squatters' slum) - one of 52 in Nouakchott. Now more than 12,000 people have access to the closest, cleanest, and cheapest water in the city.

The cisterns were built with a $1.8 million five-year grant from USAID's Mauritania Antipoverty Program. The funding is provided through commodity monetisation. Last year, World Vision sold 5,400 metric tons of wheat donated by the U.S. government to Mauritanian mills and used the money for development activities. Projects include the water program, a $3 million microcredit project currently benefiting 18,718 people, and 12 feeding centres that care for more than 1,000 malnourished children every month.

The water project has improved the quality of life for people in Sebkha, El Mina, and Arafat - three neighbourhoods where World Vision operates Area Development Programs (ADPs) funded by Germany and Switzerland. More than 9,200 children in World Vision programs live here, including Coumba's six-year-old son who is sponsored by a Swiss donor.

Water for the cisterns is provided by the government at deeply discounted prices negotiated by World Vision. Community management committees ensure that the concrete cisterns are kept clean, the taps working. The committee sells the water for about three cents per 20-litre jug - 80 per cent less than what the donkey cart salesmen charge. The money is used to maintain the cistern and for community income-generating projects. Each cistern costs approximately $2,500 to construct. The community contributes about ten per cent toward the cost.

On World Water Day, Coumba and her neighbours will sip glasses of sweet mint tea (made from clean water) as they meet in a community tent near their cistern. They'll be debating how to best use the nest egg they've saved in the water account. The afternoon meeting in the hot sun may last for several hours. But the women won't go thirsty.