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Mali: clean water for a hostile environment – an end to Guinea worm disease?

© UNICEF/Mali/2009/Pirozzi
Women fetching water from one of the community’s boreholes in the village of Golombo, Mopti region, central Mali.

Bamako, Mali, 23 October 2009 - "I fetch water with my daughters and the other women in the household. Sometimes we have to queue for as longs as two hours at the pump."

Swirls of sand and dust engulf the girls as they draw water from a traditional well surrounded by a mud wall.

Accessing safe water remains a challenge
Once their buckets are full, they put them on their heads and gracefully venture into the endless stretches of dry arid land, seemingly oblivious to the sand blowing into their eyes and up their nostrils.

Golombo village, in the semi-desert region of Mopti in central Mali, is a hostile environment, and its population of around 2,300 people have had to learn ways to survive.

Their biggest problem is water. The women and girls spend huge amounts of time and energy fetching water, and until the installation of a protected well, that very water was the cause of deadly diarrheal disease, including cholera, and crippling guinea worm infection.

Guinea worm infection is caught by drinking standing water or bathing in water that has been contaminated with small fleas infected with the tiny larvae of the guinea worm.

On average it takes one year for an infected person to show the symptoms of infection, when the worm, which can grow up to three feet, begins to protrude from the person’s body, most typically from their foot or leg.

When it begins to emerge, it causes swelling, fever, possible infection and debilitating pain.

There is no cure and the only solution is to assist the worm to slowly wriggle its way out of the person’s body by winding it around a stick, pulling it out a bit at a time.

This agonizing process can take weeks.

The scourge of the guinea worm
The village head, Amadou Kassambara, can bear testimony to that.

"Almost all of us in the village have had guinea worms at least once," he says showing a deep scar on his leg where the worm came out. "I couldn’t walk for six months."

Aissata Tangara is fortunate to be one of the few that has never suffered a guinea worm infection, but she has still grown weary from fetching water.

She goes to the well five times a day for her extended family household of 62 people. "I fetch water with my daughters and the other women in the household. Sometimes we have to queue for as long as two hours at the pump."

But soon the agony of guinea worm infection and the many hours and high level of energy spent on fetching water could be a distant memory.

There has been no case of guinea worm in Mopti for the past two years following a successful campaign run by the government, with UNICEF support. The campaign has involved educating the population about how to avoid infection, treating water sources and distributing filters to communities. It is hoped that by 2012 guinea worm will be eradicated from the country.

UNICEF supports the eradication campaign
And gradually, with support from UNICEF and its partners, the Government is providing potable water to more communities.

Today, only half of rural communities have access to safe water.

The community living in Golombo village recently approached UNICEF to assist in installing a solar-powered potable water supply piped network which will improve water distribution throughout the village so that they will no longer have to pump and queue for long hours.

The main challenges are to ensure proper operation and maintenance of the system and to establish a sound pay-as-you-fetch system which will allow setting aside sufficient funds to buy spare parts, pay for repairs and to extend the system as the village grows.

According to Dr Moussa Saye, the regional coordinator of the guinea worm eradication campaign in Mopti, maintenance of the new solar water supply system is feasible in a sustainable way.

"This community is well organized," he says.

"They always manage to cover the maintenance costs of the well they use now. The longest they have had to wait for spare parts for the pump is just one week."

This is commendable in a country where communities are poor, spare parts can be scarce and transport is difficult.

A community commitment against guinea worm
The 12 committee members, who were elected by their community, explain how they ensure that their current well is maintained.

They hope that with more UNICEF supported training they will be able to improve their management skills.

The Treasurer, Malik Diallo, explains that each of the 212 households pays 600 francs ($1.10) each year to use the traditional well, which he says, has covered the purchase of spare parts or repairs, usually necessary once a month.

Djamina Kassambara, the president of the village women’s group, organizes the women and girls in the village to clean the area around the well every Friday.

And if any of the users do not take off their shoes before entering the well enclosure, they have to pay a fine of 100 francs (20 cents) to the committee, which is also put into the kitty for repairs.

Kassambara adds that the next management committee should have more women.

The present 12-member committee has only two women.

"I think the well will be better managed if there are more women on the committee. We women are used to having lots of different responsibilities in our households," she says emphatically.

The men in the group nod in agreement.

By Ismael Maiga



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