The Water Pact

A story by Samuel Turpin, photojournalist working on human rights and environmental causes for over 20 years. He won the 'United Nations Sustainable Goal Development Goals Award' in 2019 for his project Human & climate change stories.

In Burkina Faso, acquiring a reliable supply of drinking water is something that is becoming a challenge. Fleeing the North – currently suffering from a conflict which began 4 years ago – one million of Burkina Faso's inhabitants are now living as displaced people. The movement of people is increasing the pressure of demand for water and destabilising the already fragile balance in urban and rural areas. The suffering of the rural areas, crippled by the effects of climate change and public policies, persists unabated, while hidden by this conflict.

  • Village of Balgouma - district of Kaya - Burkina Faso. "There is only one water point for all of us, and for the livestock which takes precedence. We can come to the pump at 6 a.m. and wait until noon." Photo credit: Samuel Turpin/ Oxfam

    "Look at all these women. They come here with their water canisters in search of water. They've been waiting in line here at the pump for four or five hours, sometimes to fill a container with just 10 litres of water," notes Binta Sawadogo, deputy mayor of the town of Kaya, the administrative seat of the Centre Nord region. The water canisters are lined up over tens of metres: red, green, yellow and blue containers. Some still display the stickers of the humanitarian organisations that distributed them. It is 1 pm. The sun is at its zenith and beats down on anything that protrudes beyond the meagre patches of shade that move with the sun as it travels. A lucky few shelter in the shade of the tent used a few months ago to register the displaced people, without losing sight of their water container. The order is determined by the time of arrival. It's a case of first come, first served.

    We are in Sector 6. Here, most of the displaced people have "melted away" into the general population, taking refuge with their own family circle or with a host family. The white or blue tents and plastic sheeting everywhere mark the presence of the 100,000 displaced people who have swollen the town's population to double its original size in less than two years. The region now holds a total of around 500,000 displaced people.

    Since 2016, Burkina Faso has been falling ever deeper into chaos and violence. Repeating the pattern seen in neighbouring Mali, Jihadist groups – the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) – have rapidly established themselves in the great desert expanses of the North which have been abandoned by successive governments.

    Bolstered by the decline of the state and the climate of rebellion that followed the fall of former president Blaise Compaoré, the armed groups have exploited local frictions and the deteriorating conditions in rural areas to recruit from among the ranks of local bandits and sectors of the population where an acute sense of injustice prevails, to maintain strong "anti-government" sentiment and foster community rifts.

    Destabilised by the spiralling of civil war, the Ouagadougou authorities for their part persist in responding with military action, but are being increasingly undermined by the abuses committed by their own armed forces and the self-defence groups set up to "help in the fight against the terrorists". The clashes have caused the displacement of more than a million people towards areas of Burkina Faso's Centre region.

  • Village of Balgouma - district of Kaya - Burkina Faso. This borehole is used for household use and water for livestock. Credit: Samuel Turpin/ Oxfam

    "The town's infrastructures cannot take the weight of such an influx over a period of less than two years", the deputy mayor of Kaya continues. "Particularly our water network. Especially during the dry period, which is drawn out ever longer, and is accompanied by ever higher temperatures." The 4 boreholes that drew water from a medium depth when the water network was created in 1964 were enough to keep the town supplied with water for more than 35 years, until it began to swell, due to the combined effects of an expanding population, urban growth accelerated by the harshness of rural life, and the lure of new economic opportunities.

    As of 2004, the town has therefore had to draw its drinking water from Lake Dem, around 15 km away. The water-pumping station and processing plant was replaced in 2009, but is already demonstrating "insufficient capacity for the population of Kaya", notes the head of the Office Nationale des Eaux et de l’Assainissement (ONEA - National Office for Water and Sanitation), who makes no attempt to conceal his concern. Lake Dem has lost about 40% of its area in less than 20 years as a result of the impact of human activity intensively exploiting its shores, but also due to climate change. "At this point, at the end of February, it's normally quite a mild month, but we're already seeing the kind of temperatures we normally have in May, which is the hottest month of the year – and these days it's like that nearly every year. We plan to dig 3 new deep boreholes on the edge of town but, in the meantime, we have to resort to implementing an alternating-supply schedule," ONEA's director explains.

    There are entire districts that no longer receive a supply, such as Sector 4, the most heavily populated part of the town. "The water problem began in 2015. We had water once a week, then once every two weeks. The water arrived at night. You could even imagine all the women of the district staying up waiting for it. We left the taps on and as soon as one of us heard the water flowing, she would alert all of the others via whatsapp or by phone. But since the displaced people came, we can go a whole month without water. So, we buy water privately," says Clémence, one of the residents of the district.

    Demand is shaping supply. Water is becoming a business. "A 200-litre barrel of water used to cost 500 Central African francs (0.80 euros) two years ago. Now it's 750 CFA francs (1.10 euros)", adds Clémence, "in a country where three-quarters of the population live on less than one euro a day. The problem is that the ONEA insists that we keep paying the rate for the water service. So, we're paying for the water twice over".

    Those who receive water supplied by the ONEA water authority resell it, making a small profit. Others dig wells on their plot of land, hoping to find a source of water, then set up a mini pumping station that helps to supply a whole district.

    "Every week I receive dozens of requests for boreholes" says Kaya's deputy mayor, "and even if we ask the owners to carry out tests to check the quality of the water before using it or selling it on, we can't keep an eye on everything. So, yes, we are aware that there are health risks, and that it creates a water market operating in parallel to ONEA – but we don’t have any choice at this point, as we wait for solutions to be found!"

  •  City of Kaya -Burkina Faso. On the Kaya site. The Oxfam team makes sure that the water facilities are working properly. Photo credit: Samuel Turpin/ Oxfam

    Water – the new priority for international organisations

    In Burkina Faso, as in Niger and Mali, conflict and population movements are undermining existing services. This is the case particularly in rural areas, beginning with health centres, which are struggling to respond to medical and mental health emergencies, and with regard to water resources, which are unable to support the pressure of a mass influx of people. According to the agencies of the United Nations and non-governmental organisations, 29 million people[1] are in need of assistance in the Sahel region and around 6 million people are suffering severely from a lack of access to drinking water.

    "In emergency situations, when there is no infrastructure, we resort to water trucking, in other words transporting water using tanker trucks to distribute it, or to store it in water tanks. This has quite considerable logistical and cost implications, however. In situations like the one here in Kaya we can improve existing infrastructures. We refurbish pumps when they fail, and we dig new boreholes in the most strategic locations, where demand is high," explains Noël Zigani, who is in charge of NGO Oxfam's operations in the Centre Nord region. After being collected, the water is then fed directly into ONEA's existing network, or stored, thanks to the construction of water tanks and water towers, to offset the risks of an unreliable or "just-in-time" supply. Access to water becomes a priority goal for all parties involved, particularly at a time of pandemic, for obvious humanitarian and health reasons - because a shortage of water, or the consumption of water not suitable for drinking purposes, increases the risks of viral diseases – but also for socio-economic and safety reasons.

    "The problems of access to water obviously create tensions that can be seen right across town, particularly at water sources. People are tired. Mothers argue over their spot, their water container. Quarrels break out and can rapidly turn nasty," says Noël Zigani. Managing inter-community conflict rapidly became a vital element of humanitarian and development operations. The projects that operate systematically include local authorities and traditional authorities on both population-management bodies and committees for raising awareness among the population.

  • Village of Soubo - district of Ouahigouya - Burkina Faso. Aguiratou Ouedraogo is a farmer. She fetches water from a well to water her vegetable crops, with the help of another farmer. Photo credit: Samuel Turpin/ Oxfam

    "Traditionally it's the women who perform the chores of collecting water in our Sahel regions, but spending half a day or indeed an entire day lining up waiting for it prevents them from carrying out all of their daily tasks that help to 'make a bit of money': going to the market, doing a little bit of business, looking after the family or a small orchard, preparing meals, and so on," notes Noël Zigani. For the vast majority of households, it is these small things that represent "the minimum survival requirement" for them day to day. The women, traditionally at the heart of running the home, are also the most vulnerable part of it, particularly widows and women separated from their families. This burden laid upon the women exposes them to many forms of exploitation. The women have to "deal with it" and must bear their shame and their suffering in silence.

    Aminata calls out to us on our return journey, away from public view. She tells her story, holding her two young children in her arms. She fled her village after the death of her husband, murdered right in front of her. She doesn't know anybody in Kaya. She is being exploited as a general drudge in exchange for a corner to sleep in. She is beaten if she refuses. "When I really have nothing to feed my children, I even agree to prostitute myself for 500 Central African francs (0.80 euros). Sometimes they give me even less." Aminata lowers her gaze. This conflict has its hidden and unacknowledged forms of violence.

  • District of Kaya - Burkina Faso. The village of Balgouma (a Fulani herding village) has seen its population double as a result of welcoming displaced Mossi and Fulani people. Photo credit: Samuel Turpin/ Oxfam

    The spectre of inter-community conflict in rural areas

    "In the villages, the water source is all-purpose. It is used for household needs, to prepare food, for washing yourself, to wash the clothes and to water the orchard or the market-garden," explains Abdoulaye Ba Fatman. He is head of the association of rural mayors of the Centre Nord region, and is mayor of the commune of Barsalogho. Abdoulaye gives off an air of reassuring quiet strength, but never eases up on his level of vigilance. "We could fall victim to an ambush at any time, either in the village or on the road," he notes. We left the town of Kaya with him to travel to the villages of the region. Today, 85% of Burkinabés are agro-pastoralists, combining crop growing and livestock rearing, and a little over half of the displaced people have been taken in by villages and small communities – like here, in the village of Balgouma. "What you see here is the type of scene you can find in any village today," he says. There is the burning sun, beating down and turning the earth into dust. The arms pumping. The rattling of the valve, which with each pump of the handle releases its half litre of water from the end of the pipe. The dozens of people and dozens of water canisters lined up in front of the borehole. The people waiting their turn, the tempers flaring, the soothing voices of those attempting to restore calm. And the hundreds of cattle gathered around the trough adjoining the water pump. The cattle amble along, each in their turn, complying with the gestures and tongue-clicking signals from the herders.

    "For livestock farmers, their cattle are absolutely everything. They're their identity and their means of survival. Watering their cattle is therefore more important than their own lives, so they're well organised," explains the village headman. The cattle, herded in small groups to drink, from first light, are the priority. The women will have to wait for hours before being able to fill their water canisters.

    "It's not the displaced people that are the problem, but the water!", two of the women emphasise. Djeneba is one of the villagers. She is a member of the Fula people and is a livestock farmer. Aizata is a member of the Mossi people and is a crop farmer, one of the displaced, who has been living in the village for a year now. "We all live here together in harmony. For us, whether Fula or Mossi, it makes no difference. We're all just people who are suffering." Although displaced people for the most part find themselves a place in villages made up of the same ethnic groups as themselves, Balgouma is a village of livestock farmers that has given shelter to both groups equally. Conflict exacerbates ethnic isolation and divisions. Life together as a community of both livestock farmers and crop farmers can rapidly deteriorate once the balance is disrupted, and give way to frustrations. The pressure on water supplies, the cattle that trample the fields and graze on the crops: this is a scenario that is centuries old. It takes little more than this for people to start seeking culprits to blame for their troubles and to give free rein to old resentments and grudges. The Fula populations, which are among the hardest hit by the conflict today, are also frequently accused of collusion with the armed groups.

    "Just imagine, when the displaced people settle in a village with their livestock, the kind of pressure that this can place on a water source. In Barsalogho, for example, all of the livestock farmers have settled on the edge of the town with their livestock – but there are no surface water sources for them to water their herds. You can understand why quarrels break out when water from the boreholes is used for livestock, and the people of Barsalogho are not even able to wash at least every day," notes Abdoulaye Ba Fatman, wearing his mayor's hat. The small town of Barsalogho, 60 km from Kaya, has become the epicentre of the conflict since late 2019. Attacks and ambushes on the road regularly deprive it of all supplies and any humanitarian aid. It has had to absorb around 88,000 displaced people. In other words, three times the size of its original population. When it becomes a pressing need, the women travel five or sometimes seven kilometres in search of water and wood for fuel from the villages outside the town. These are the same villages from which the residents have fled due to attacks and the presence of armed groups. It's a grotesque situation. Violence, rape, abductions ensue: the women prefer not to speak out, to protect their families and so that they are not repudiated.

  • Village of Namsigui - district of Kaya - Burkina Faso. Inoussa Sawadogo is a farmer. "I am adapting to the consequences of climate change by adopting new farming techniques." Photo credit: Samuel Turpin/ Oxfam

    Concealed behind the conflict, the troubles of a rural world

    We continue on our way. We stop in the villages of Namsigui, Sera, Louda, Nesmetenga, then here, in Kiendyendé. We listen. We ask questions. Everywhere it's the same stories and the same situations.

    "The village has been here for around 300 years, and there had never been water shortages for several years in a row. Just 15 years ago, the rains provided enough water for both the livestock and the crops," 62-year-old village headman Adama recalls – even during the time of the great droughts of 1976 and 1984. But today it rains less. With the effects of climate change, the rainy season has grown shorter and shorter, and arrives ever later. Rainfall has decreased by around one third, on average, since the first surveys conducted in the Sahel in 1951, while the dry season has become ever longer, and increasingly hotter. Temperatures are rising 1.5 times more rapidly here than in the rest of the world. "We have no benchmarks any longer. The weather outlook is unpredictable and harvests no longer provide enough for a family to live on," Adama continues, in a subdued voice. Just one of the three original boreholes that the village and the neighbouring hamlets once had is still in operation today, to meet the needs of around 1,000 people. Three times more than the maximum recommended by international humanitarian standards[1]. All of the open-air water sources used to water crops and livestock dried up just two months after the end of the rainy season. Water stress has thus become a daily reality from the end of December, and then for a further 5 to 6 months.

    "We have no option but to adapt," says Adama. The agro-pastoralists are gradually learning to diversify their activities so as not to depend on a single harvest any longer and are experimenting, in spite of the supply problems, with seeds that have been improved to withstand times of severe drought. They are also returning to forgotten traditional cultivation techniques that slow down evapotranspiration, such as stone water-retaining barriers, zai pits and half-moon pits[2], and use natural fertilisers on their soil, which has been left impoverished by years of monoculture and the intensive use of plant-disease treatments. African farmers have themselves become dependent on such techniques, originating in the kind of Western practices presented in the '90s as a remedy for food insecurity.

    "There is the lack of rain, the shortage of water, the rise in temperatures and there are the effects of climate change. We see this every day. It is our reality – but it's not just that," explains Belko, a 33-year-old agro-pastoralist. "In fact, we no longer have access to the land, either to grow crops or to graze our herds. Before, I could practise transhumance, herding my cattle as far as Barsalogho. Now this land is forbidden to us." The successive reforms introduced under the Land and Forestry laws, in 1997 and 2009, have contributed to undermining the land rights of indigenous people – who sometimes end up being driven off land they have been cultivating for decades – and causing land speculation which feeds into community-based tropism. The rural populations unequivocally condemn the exploitative tactics of those who exploit the economic and political levers to "monopolise the country's resources".

    "And all of this ends up discouraging the young people, or it makes them want to join the armed groups. I would say that out of 100 young people that I know, 40 have departed for the towns or for Europe to try to survive on poorly-paid casual work, 40 have gone to work in the gold mines, and only about 20 still live in the village," Belko concludes.

    [1] Established in 1997, the Sphere standards are a set of humanitarian principles and standards which apply to four technical areas of humanitarian action. 1) Health, 2) Shelter, 3) food security and nutrition, and 4) water supply, sanitation and promotion of hygiene.

    [2] Zai pits are a traditional system for revitalising the productivity of the land, which involves planting seedlings in holes in which rainwater runoff and organic material are concentrated