Too many communities in the North-West Region of Cameroon do not have year-round access to a supply of safe drinking water. Although many have a water supply system of some sort, the systems are often badly in need of both extension and repair. As a result, most villagers are dependent on water from polluted streams during at least one or two months of the dry season. The result is rampant sickness from typhoid, diarrhea and other diseases that can often be fatal to very young children. Residents often don’t understand the causes and costs of water contamination As a result, they may be reluctant to pay the annual water levy to access something that looks the same as the water they can get free from the stream; they don’t provide adequate protection of the areas around the water catchments; and simple and easily implemented measures for water conservation (such as not leaving taps running) and for water purification (such as leaving the home supply to sit a day in the sun before drinking) are neglected.
In 2015 we completed surveys of the work needing to be done in six municipalities in order to provide all residents with a clean and safe water supply. Although every one of the dozens of villages surveyed needs extensive rehabilitation of their water system, we remembered a saying we learned in Tanzania: “little by little, a little becomes a lot.” The good news is that there are a variety of funding sources that can be tapped to do the work: the US Embassy in Cameroon offers municipalities self-help grants for precisely this type of project; assessments of just a few dollars per household will often provide sufficient funds for needed repairs; and since a functional system should be self-supporting by means of these assessments, loans from banks or major charitable organizations are an option where no other funding is available.
Unfortunately, completion of all needed projects will take months at best and often years. So funding must also be obtained to provide interim purification. Interesting research has shown that chlorine dispensers installed where water is collected are used far more frequently than any home purification systems: it easier to remember and to be encouraged to use the necessary chemicals when they are right there where the can is filled, dispensed in the right amount, and when others are seen doing it. Furthermore, most of the waiting time needed for the chlorine to act is passed on the trip back home. One salt-based chlorine dispenser adequate to clean water for 1000 people costs less than $200 to install and less than $5/year/household to maintain. These dispensers can be installed in the locations where water is collected from streams when the catchments run dry or where the only working taps are too far away to serve certain quarters of the villages.
But municipalities must have reliable and responsive Water Management Committees (WMCs) to apply for and successfully secure grants or loans, and to assess and collect water levies. And to get villagers to protect and conserve their existing water supply, pay the assessment required to upgrade their system, and use available chlorine dispensers in the interim, they need, first, to understand the importance of clean water and, next, to trust their WMC to design and maintain a system that will provide it.
In other words, initially the problem is more social than physical: each village needs to establish an effective WMC, and the WMCs within a municipality must work together with the local council to apply for grants and loans as needed; the villagers must value clean water enough to not leave taps running, and to use whatever interim water purification method is established, and to trust and support their WMC enough to pay assessed levies. So the first little step that will lead eventually to a lot of clean safe water is to hire an indigenous community organizer to work with local councils, elders, and community leaders in one municipality to develop and implement a plan for funding and maintaining a safe and ample water supply. If we can help one municipality achieve this goal, we believe it can serve as a powerful model for other municipalities in the area.
Although our international volunteers have provided invaluable technical services, this job requires someone intimately familiar with local languages, traditions, customs and personalities. We are currently seeking funding for such a community organizer to get the ball rolling.
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