WaterAid brings hope to Mali

On a visit to Mali, leading figures from the water industry found out that there is a lot more to WaterAid's work than digging holes. Fiona Blake from the international charity reveals what they learned

On 21 January, 2008, Pamela Taylor, chief executive of Water UK and vice chair of WaterAid’s Trustees, embarked on a visit to WaterAid’s vital work in Mali, West Africa, with a group of senior water industry staff.

The group included: Tony Collins, UK managing director of Black & Veatch; Jo Stimpson, finance director at South East Water; Andrew Cowell, operations director at MWH; and Tim Slater, managing director of Industrial DHL Exel Supply Chain.

Mali is in West Africa, and is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 175 out of 177 in the United Nations Development Report 2006. Two thirds of Mali is covered in desert and this harsh environment is deteriorating further as rainfall is reducing.

Sixty per cent of Mali’s population lives below the poverty line and figures for water and sanitation provision vary considerably. Official sources state that half the population has access to safe water, but some estimates say a figure of 27% is more realistic. As a result water-related diseases are common and child mortality is very high, with one in five children dying before their fifth birthday.

On arrival, the visitors went straight into a briefing on the appalling sanitation situation in Mali by the director of the Government Department of Environment and Sanitation. Meetings with the respective sanitation and water ministers were to follow during the visit.

The good news is that a national sanitation policy to focus attention and resources has been introduced. The downside is that the ministry only has 6% of the staff it requires – 154 people out of 3,700.

Responsibility for water and sanitation has been decentralised to local government districts, which do not necessarily have the skills and resources to implement policies. WaterAid has responded to this by localising the Millennium Development Goals to reflect this, working with local governments to develop strategic local development plans and working with them to build their capacity to implement.

Tony Collins said: “What was noticeable from the moment we arrived is the very high regard and respect that WaterAid, as an organisation and its individuals are held by government, business and the local community, as well as among the ordinary people.”

The group spent time visiting some of WaterAid’s water and sanitation projects in the villages of Simba West, Tienfala and Niamakoro near the capital city of Bamako. The group was able to see the progress being made from funds raised across the industry, and to find out what still needed to be done.

Simba West is 25km and a bumpy two-hour drive from the capital Bamako. This community relies on two open wells, unprotected from contamination. The water has been declared unfit for human consumption by the Department of Health, but there is no choice but to use it. People are also in danger while pulling water up from the well, as the sides are slippery and accidents frequently happen.

The group was struck by the extremely poor environmental sanitation, animals roamed freely with faeces left everywhere. There was not enough water to go round and we witnessed children with unwashed faces and clothes encrusted with dirt.

It was shocking to see the scale of eye problems among adults and children. There were multiple cases of waterborne diseases including scabies, malaria, onchocerciasis and acute diarrhoea. Seven per cent of villagers were blind, and many visually impaired due to the poor quality of water available.

In one interview with a family, when asked what their hopes and dreams for the future would be, the lady of the household said they wished for clean water and a health clinic – the nearest one is a 15km walk away. The village is in the action plan for WaterAid’s local partner AMPDR for future intervention. During the field visit to Tienfale, the group saw pilot work undertaken to adapt water and sanitation facilities for use by those with special needs. Latrines had been adapted with a raised structure for blind and disabled people.

WaterAid’s work in Mali has a focus on equity and inclusion to ensure the most vulnerable and marginalised people are not excluded from accessing water and sanitation facilities. One woman, who now had an adapted latrine, danced with joy on meeting the group – telling them she had had to crawl to try and find the hole to squat over.

Next they visited a well that had been adapted for special needs use with a pulley system instead of a rope to assist blind people, and a ramp and space for wheelchair use. This village of 1,100 people had a significant number of sight problems, particularly among the older people, caused by the tsetse fly and diabetes. Thanks to the design of this well, 25 families with blindness are able to earn a livelihood from their impressive kitchen garden, selling their crops at the local market. It also meant a big improvement in the diet and nutrition of the community.

This pilot work on accessibility to facilities is now being integrated across WaterAid’s programmes, expanding the initiative to become available for more disabled people.

It is not every day you get to visit a latrine slab manufacturer, but at a non profit-making operation set up by the local partner organisation, the group heard how households dug their pits and collected the concrete slabs, which were made to order. A raised version of these sanplats had been designed to meet the needs of disabled people.

The community fixes the price paid for the latrine slabs, equivalent to £6, which can be paid over six months. The mason, trained by WaterAid’s partner, would receive £1.50 of this. The disabled sanplats cost £9 and the family or individual requesting it, had a longer period of 12 months over which to pay it.

“Sanitation development is key to the success of these projects,” explained Jo Stimpson of South East Water, “…and as it is the UN Year of Sanitation, it was fantastic to see WaterAid’s work and the commitment of the villagers to strive to achieve facilities that we all take for granted.”

Tony Collins said: “We visited villages and communes, some that have benefited from WaterAid’s involvement and some that had not. The difference was stark.”

The fact-finding group went on to visit the largest neighbourhood in the district of Bamako, consisting of 77,000 people. It is here that EDM, the nationalised energy and utility company with the responsibility for serving the region’s population, is based – it is unable to meet the demand.

WaterAid’s partner, AMASBIF, had set up water committees in each village. Each is responsible for the management, sanitation and hygiene in their community. The committees are made up of volunteers elected from a gathering of 45 well organised and enthusiastic women, all incredibly committed to fighting the challenges of dirty water and hygiene.

Pamela Taylor said: “I was also struck by the role women play, particularly in the peri-urban community we visited. Their organisational skills were much relied on.”

These committees have stimulated interest in water and sanitation issues. Demand for these facilities is growing, and increasingly, people living in the local area are keen to help improve the environment in which they live in.

The committee said: “There is no longer only stagnant water for drinking and washing our clothes, and there are fewer mosquitoes.” Stomach aches and water-related diseases have been noticeably reduced.

WaterAid has a key role in advocacy and coordinating the multiple stakeholders involved in the water and sanitation sector in Mali; from national and local government, to civil society organisations and local and international non-governmental organisations.

Tony Collins said: “I learnt a lot about the complexities and complications of WaterAid’s work. As an engineer, I had come out thinking the crux of the matter was in digging the holes and installing the equipment. But I found I was wrong. The true values are in advocating, lobbying and in planning; in facilitating, coordinating and aligning; in educating and empowering; and in fostering trust and cooperation between people and groups.”

There are not enough water points in Mali. Eighteen standpipes exist for 8,000 people in some urban areas, in others there are none. Andrew Cowell reflected: “It might seem an impossible task to provide water and sanitation to all, but if we had taken that approach in the UK 150 years ago, where would we be today? The people in Mali who are working to provide water and sanitation to their country are today’s pioneers.”

The trip ended with the group on News at Ten in Mali, the visit highlighting the importance of the work being done by NGOs like WaterAid in the local media.

Pamela Taylor concluded: “It would be easy to feel a sense of hopelessness in the face of such an overwhelming need for water and sanitation, but the WaterAid Mali team deals only in hope and a can-do attitude. We saw the village chief cry with gratitude that, at last, an organisation was prepared to work with them to help. The visit certainly had a profound impact on me… and the Mali team will remain an inspiration to me.”

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