How access to water changed life in five villages in Niger's Tahoua Region
Only a few months ago, five communities in Tahoua Region got access to water in their villages. UNICEF went to talk to the villagers to learn about the profound impact they are living through.
The few houses that make up the village of Tacha Adoua, about 60 kilometers east of the region's capital Tahoua, stand amidst a barren landscape of sand, thorny shrubs and dusty trees. A seemingly relentless sun is hammering down already early in the morning with temperatures climbing over 40 degrees Celsius. Humans and animals alike search for shade.
Water – or rather the laborious quest for water - has dominated the life of communities in this hostile environment for the past years. This changed end of last year, when five villages with 7,600 habitants got access to water as part of a joint UNICEF-WFP project to increase the resilience of communities in Tahoua, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"Women and children are those who benefit most from the fountains."
"Women and children are those who benefit most from the fountains," said 45-year-old Yassin Mahamadou. "In the past, it was the work of the women and children to fetch water. Every morning, we would leave the village with our donkeys to go to the lake and fill our jerrycans. Going back and forth, would take us three or four hours."
Every donkey was loaded with two or three plastic jerrycans of 20 liters each. If more water was needed, they would head out another time to get more water. Such days, literally most of the daylight hours was spent getting water.
"Washing clothes was a luxury that we could not afford. Our children went to school with unwashed clothes. Now, I am proud to send them off to school in clean clothes," Ms. Mahamadou adds.
"Life has become much easier for us," said Ramatou Amadou, another woman from the village, pouring water from a yellow jerry can into a grey plastic tub to wash dishes in her home. Instead of walking for seven kilometers with a donkey to transport the water, she now can get the water from the fountain 100 meters from her home in the middle of the village.
"Before I could get married, my father had to buy a donkey to fetch water to include in the dowry," said the 25-year-old. "No woman could get married without a donkey. Now, that is not a condition anymore."
"In the past, there never was enough water;" said Mr. Hakimi, the head of the village who goes by a single name. He recalls how they did not have enough water to perform proper ablutions or to have guests over. "We felt ashamed for our children who went to school in dirty clothes", he said.
"Our children are better behaved and pay more attention in school. I feel that now our children will become well prepared adults, ready for their future!"
That is, when the girls and boys went the school: "Usually, the children missed half lessons because they had to get water," he said. "Our children are better behaved and pay more attention in school. I feel that now our children will become well prepared adults, ready for their future!"
The headmaster of the nearby primary school with 181 students, says that when he started classes in the past, usually only about half of all students would be at school. He lives outside of the village in the city of Tabalak, built along the lake that the villagers went to fetch water from.
"Every morning when I was on my way to work, I would see children from my school on their way to get water. I knew that it would be at least two hours until they showed up in class. Now there are no absences anymore and the test results have improved."
"It was hard work to get water and I missed many lessons because of it. (...) My favorite subject is history and now I can catch up!"
"It was hard work to get water and I missed many lessons because of it", said Fatou, a student from the school and president of the school parliament. "I missed school and I did not have time to study. My favorite subject is history and now I can catch up!"
Her classmate Aghali, who drinks from a red cup at the drinking station in front of the two-classroom school, also missed many lessons because he was doing the tedious water-runs. "Now I spend more time in school and afterwards I even have time to play soccer with the other boys."
The school has its own fountain, also attached to the well that provides water to the five villages and four other schools. A handwashing station in front of the school is being filled by the six-grade boys and small water buckets and pieces of soap stand on the floor in the gender-segregated latrines behind the schoolhouse.
"In the past, everyone would avoid using the latrines", said Fatou. "Now, both students and teachers use them." Hygiene at the school has improved and a committee of students cleans the latrines and sensitizes other students on the proper handwashing.
The project did not only bring water to the villages, but also introduce new behaviors regarding sanitation and hygiene. "Every family now has a latrine in their yard," explained Mr. Hakimi, the head of the village. "Some built walls around them, others used wattled sticks to ensure privacy, but the important thing is that we all now use latrines."
During the last rainy season, several latrines were flooded and destroyed. "All families rebuilt them," said Hakimi. "We consider them now as part of our houses."
In a country, where most of the population practices open defecation, this is an important step towards a healthier, cleaner environment. "We did not want that anyone sees us doing what we were doing so we would walk behind that hill", said 10-year-old Mohamed Ibrahim in front of his family's latrine, pointing to a hill one kilometer away.
In addition to the 14 kilometers to get water every day, he would also need to do 2 kilometers for a bowel movement. "Only at night we would go less far, because it is dark at night and no one could see us."
"The number of children brought in with diarrhea and water-borne diseases has reduced significantly. We also see a positive impact on the nutritional status of the children."
Access to water combined with the end of open defecation in the five villages has had a big impact on the health of the girls and boys after only a few months. At the health center, 40-year-old Hama Soumana, the nurse in charge of the health center that serves more than 7,800 habitants, sees the improvement every day.
"The number of children under five years of age being brought in with diarrhea and water-borne diseases has reduced significantly. We also see a strong positive impact on the nutritional status of the children."
He stresses that it needed all three elements to have this impact: access to water, the commitment to end open air defecation and sensitization and adaption of best hygiene practices.
The health center now also has a fountain in its yard which has made life easier for Mr. Soumana and his three colleagues who work at the center, but also for their patients and the women coming in to deliver a baby.
"Before we had water here, the family of every woman would need to bring in two jerrycans of water with the woman. Sometimes they would forget and we would scramble to find water or use water that another woman brought in."
The most visible element contributing to these far-reaching changes is a 10-meter-high water tower with a capacity of 100'000 liters. A chain link fence closes off the tower, two small buildings with the pump and electrical system and an array of solar panels providing the energy to pump water from more than 500 meters below the surface into the reservoir.
A pipe system carries water to 16 fountains, 4 drinking troughs for animals, 5 schools and the health center that serves the villages. A water management committee made up by representatives from the communities takes decisions on the use of the water, collects fees and ensures maintenance and upkeep.
The project is part of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation's funding to improve resilience in the Sahel.