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Safe drinking water

400 wells for 20 ethnic groups

by Frank Bliss

In depth

An unusual scene: a boy ! helping a girl to lift a 20-litre water container

An unusual scene: a boy ! helping a girl to lift a 20-litre water container

Drilling wells is one of the oldest and apparently easiest ways to support development. An example from Chad, however, proves that projects of this kind can actually be very demanding. Social and cultural aspects may matter more than strictly technical considerations. By Frank Bliss

Mayo Kebbi is a southwestern part of Chad that juts into Cameroon. In the rainy season, many parts of this area are cut off from the outside world. Its size is about 20,000 square kilometres, and it’s 750,000 to 850,000 people do not have a single kilometre of paved road. Many of the 1,100 villages are completely on their own in the wet season.

In the past seven years, KfW Entwicklungsbank ran a project in Mayo Kebbi to improve the supply of drinking water. The KfW team only worked in the dry months from January to June because well drilling operations were impossible when it rained. Nonetheless, the weather proved to be a relatively small challenge – compared with other problems. According to official statistics, Mayo Kebbi is home to eight large ethnic groups and five other ones. On top of these, the statistics also mention other sedentary and nomadic groups, including Arabs and people from the Bornu tribe, from the Lake Chad district. New surveys that were carried out for the drinking water project identified over 20 ethnic groups. People of different groups do not understand each other without some kind of lingua franca. For that purpose, people use French, Chadian-Arabic and Fulfulde, the language of the half-nomadic Fulbe people.

To reach out to all people concerned, the project staff needed vast language skills. All team members spoke at least three local languages fluently. Nonetheless, they often had to depend on translation services from village teachers or vet­erans of the colonial army who speak French and their respective local languages.

The cultures of the various ethnic groups are extremely diverse. Traditional leaders enjoy substantial political and social legitimacy among the Moundang and the Fulbe. But not all chefs de canton (as district chiefs are officially called in Chad) enjoy the same authority.

In order to reach a maximum number of people, project staff tried to disseminate as much information as possible. The idea was to prioritise those villages that most suffered from lack of water. Project staff used motorcycles to reach everyone who applied for support. But it soon turned out that some chefs de canton did not pass on the relevant information to all villages with serious water issues. Nor did they indicate all relevant villages in their lists of settlements with especially acute water problems. The reasons were quarrels with those villages or dissatisfaction with the presents the villages had given the leaders.

One chief completely discredited his status as a traditional authority. He collected money and then embezzled the project funds for five villages – worth about € 265 per village. He refused to return the money even after a senior regional government official intervened. Several thousand people would have been left without clean drinking water had they not raised the money all over again.

Most of the ethnic groups in Mayo Kebbi depend on agriculture and raising cattle. That is also true of the many Fulbe, who are traditionally nomads. Many now live half nomadic lives (as “transhumantes”) and spend some time of the year several hundered kilometres away from their villages with their herds. Some Fulbe settlements seem practically abandoned at certain times, only to bustle with life again later. When the people are present, they obviously need water. The project team had to make sure they were not overlooked in the planning. Otherwise, arguments over water would have arisen whenever the half-nomadic Fulbe returned to their settlements.

Because of bad experience, the project staff did not want to rely on the district chiefs. So they had to find out about such Fulbe settlements on the ground, counting the hamlets and, given the opportunity, contacting the leaders. Ultimately, wells were dug at locations that were ­easily accessible on foot from Fulbe settlements.

The project did not install wells or manual pumps in temporarily unin­habited hamlets. The risk of severe damage would have been too high. Moreover, the Fulbe would not have been able to afford maintenance. They did, however, assume some maintenance responsibility after being involved in the negotiations on where to dig the wells.

Women in water committee

In Africa, women and girls play an important role in fetching water. They carry the water on foot, sometimes for kilometres and several times a day. Nonetheless, they tend to be excluded from decisionmaking even in regard to water. This is particularly so in the countryside. When water committees were elected to manage the pumps after installation, the leaders of dozens of Fulbe villages initially refused to allow women to join all-male committees.

Then the project team asked the local chef de canton to exert his influence, but he referred them to a Fqih, a Muslim ­scholar in Cameroon, who was considered the religious leader of the Fulbe in Mayo Kebbi and Eastern Cameroon. He is a well-educated scholar and argued that Islamic rules allow women to participate in the vital debate on water. So the team organised a meeting with him, the district chief and the village authorities. The Fqih assessed the situation from the religious perspective, and from then on, villagers and officials no longer resisted women’s participation in water committees.

Basic know-how

The drinking water project for Mayo Kebbi was finalised in June 2010 as planned. In seven years, it installed 400 manual pumps to supply more than 10,000 people with clean drinking water. Germany’s financial cooperation with Chad ended in the same summer.

The example of Mayo Kebbi shows how difficult it is to plan and implement projects in ethnically diverse regions. For example, the participation of women needs to be dealt with again and again, in order to find different solutions that fit different groups. The majority population often does nothing to inform disadvantaged groups – such as the Fulbe in Mayo Kebbi – who tend to get no say in decisionmaking even though they are crucial for a project’s long-term success. For reasons of fairness and in order to prevent conflicts, the project staff has to tackle the existing power structures in ways that ensure that disadvantaged people benefit too.

The project team needs to be in touch with the people, as problems with traditional authorities have shown. Traditional leaders must not be ignored, of course, but team members have to be able to bypass them and reach out to the grassroots level. Simply listening to apparently legitimate leaders is not enough, as has been shown again and again.

These challenges mean that some extra effort is necessary. Staff members need excellent socio-cultural skills just as much as they need in-depth technical know­ledge. The project management therefore hired staff with prior project experience and provided them with some additional training on how to handle cultural and gender issues with sensitivity.

Adequate human and financial resources help to solve whatever problem that may surface. Often, the effort required for appropriate socio-cultural measures will turn out to be much smaller than initially assumed. If these issues are handled well, they will require less input than the strictly technical aspects. Mayo Kebbi, with its many cultural challenges, shows that project implementation may prove difficult, but that it is nonetheless possible to find viable solutions which are acceptable to all parties concerned.