By Alex Duval Smith
BOUAKÉ, Côte d’Ivoire, 20 September 2010 – At a checkpoint on the road leading to Niéméné, Côte d’Ivoire, stand three armed men in uniform. It has been eight years since Côte d’Ivoire was split in two, with Bouaké as the command centre of the rebel-held north, and life here is slowly returning to normal.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Zenande Mfenyana reports on a European Union supported programme to provide clean water in Côte d'Ivoire.|
Water engineer Yao Marcellin Loukou, driving a European Union-branded truck among a convoy of white UNICEF vehicles, is waved through the checkpoint. For Mr. Loukou, raising money to fuel his official car is an everyday challenge.
“Most of the time we are just stuck in the office,” he said. Mr. Loukou is one of three staff at the Bouaké branch of the National Office for Potable Water, known by the French acronym ONEP.
“Before the war there were 30 of us at ONEP, but many left and some unfortunately died,” he said. “The offices were destroyed and only re-opened recently thanks to a European Union grant. But most water projects are funded by donors and [donors] generally feel the political situation is still too unstable.
“Yet the needs are huge,” continued Mr. Loukou. “In this area alone, at least 600 new pumps are required.”
Recovering from war
Côte d’Ivoire used to be the envy of West Africa. The proceeds of cocoa production filled government coffers and civil servants delivered services, including a safety net for the poor. And with World Bank support over decades, boreholes for safe water
distribution were created on a vast scale.
|A woman in the post-conflict north of Côte d’Ivoire carries water.|
In 2002, however, a civil war that left some 3,000 people dead and up to 750,000 displaced shook the country to its core. Basic services, including water systems, suffered heavily. It was not until recently that Côte d’Ivoire – with support from UNICEF and the EU – was able to begin working to restore access to safe water for its citizens.
Mr. Loukou arrives in Niéméné accompanied by UNICEF officials, local politicians, representatives of non-governmental organizations and contractors. They bear blueprints that require two men to unfold and tape measures reeled into large metal casings. Today the village is getting an enhanced village water network with pipes and taps linked to a borehole.
Part of a larger programme across the district, the work is making strides to help the country meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals target related to water and sanitation. The MDGs, a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide, call for halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by the year 2015.
Niéméné residents have gathered in the covered market place. Some, like water committee members Ya Karidioula and N’né Fofana, have dressed up for the occasion. A village map is handed out, showing the primary school, the mosque, the dispensary and the market, as well as 45 numbered circles indicating taps.
|Villagers pour safe water in Oureguekaha, outside Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire.|
Today marks the start of the Niéméné water project’s first visible work – the digging of pipe trenches and the marking out of the taps – since engineers in October 2009 found a reliable water source and sank a 102-metre-deep borehole there. It had taken 18 months and three previous attempts, each costing about $6,000, to strike this source.
“We have waited so long for water that we are really determined to make the system work,” said Ms. Karidioula, a hospital orderly who fled from Bouaké to her native Niéméné in 2004. “The fighting was so frightening that many of us left our jobs and returned to our villages,” she said, adding that the villagers will make regular financial contributions to the water committee.
Ms. Fofana, who has lived in Niéméné all her life, says her daily routine will change forever when she has a tap at home.
“Life will be less tiring,” she said. “We have a proper well, which is about 20 years old, but during the conflict it broke down. So the men removed the pump head and we have been using ropes and a bucket.”
Water for thousands
Niéméné is one of five villages in Côte d’Ivoire’s Dabakala department to benefit from a $4.5 million EU-funded post-conflict programme, which is facilitated by UNICEF through partner NGOs, civil servants like Mr. Loukou and local administration. The project is restarting village water committees and building 465 demonstration latrines, many in schools, to inspire thousands of families to follow suit.
Some 300,000 people – including at least 50,000 children under five – stand to benefit from the programme.
Mr. Loukou briefs the villagers on the work ahead. But later he admits that the programme faces challenges. “In Côte d’Ivoire, people have become used to the state fixing broken pumps,” he explains.
“There are challenges ... like simply convincing people that paying for their water should be a priority,” agreed UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Officer Fiorella Polo. But she added that other successful pilot projects in Côte d’Ivoire and are yielding strong results.
“For us, the priority will always be the welfare of women and children,” she said.
“Already, with UNICEF’s help, we are organizing the tender process which will see contractors selected by villages to maintain pumps,” said Vice President of the regional council Onhué Ouattara. “We as a regional council want to have a central role. That’s what local politicians are for.”
EU head of infrastructure in Côte d’Ivoire Fabio Di Stefano says that water and sanitation programmes worth nearly $100 million between 2003 and 2009 provided some 8.5 million urban and rural people in Côte d’Ivoire with reliable water.
“Working with UNICEF makes sense because thanks to their international status they have access to areas where others will not go,” he said. “We have already made great progress and are now approaching pre-crisis levels of accessibility to water in rural areas.”