Desert capital struggles with water crisis

Water supplies are running out in Nouakchott, the desert capital of Mauritania, where it rains on average six days each year. The ancient underground lake that supplies the city is steadily shrinking.

Unless the government builds a pipeline to bring fresh water from the Senegal river 200 km to the south, or a desalinisation plant to distil drinking water from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, its taps will eventually run dry.

More than 600,000 people now live in Nouakchott, which was little more than a fishing village near the Atlantic Ocean when Mauritania gained independence from France in 1961.

The country’s new capital was deliberately sited at Nouakchott because the rocks beneath the city contained a vast reservoir of fresh water, known as the Trarza Lake. Over the past 43 years this has supplied Nouakchott’s inhabitants with drinking water.

The problem is, Nouakchott was only planned to be a small town of 15,000 inhabitants. It is now 40 times larger and the underground reservoir it sits upon is rapidly drying up.

The Trarza underground lake is not rain-fed, and so its water supply, although once large, is not renewable. Engineering studies have warned that its reserves could be used up completely in 50 years.

“The population explosion in Nouakchott threatens to undermine all the studies undertaken so far to assure a water supply in our main urban centres,” Amadou Sall, a demographic expert told IRIN. “Nouakchott was projected to have a population of 300,000 by the year 2000, but it already has more than 600,000. That makes the task very difficult and means that we are always looking for stop-gap solutions without following scientific advice.”

Water still runs for most of the time in the taps of the wealthy. But it is in chronically short supply in the dusty shanty towns where most of Nouakchott’s population lives.

And with more nomads flocking into the city each year as the southward creep of the Sahara desert destroys their grazing lands, the problem is growing worse.

“Unless we adopt a water policy based on scientific studies that take into consideration the scarcity of water as a resources, we will be heading for a real catastrophe in the medium to long term, because we will be endangering the future of our main urban centres, particularly Nouakchott,” Selom Mohamed Salem Ould Sidi a water engineer told IRIN.

Rainfall in Nouakchott rarely climbs above 200mm per year. There is a slim chance of rain from July through to October. But for the rest of the year, dry desert winds blow sand and dust through the city, where daytime temperatures regularly soar to over 40 degrees.

During the dry season the pressure drops in the water pipes and whole areas of the city are left without water – usually the poorest areas, where President Maaouiya Ould Taya has least support.

Nouakchott’s growth has been rapid and largely unplanned. Successive droughts since the 1970s have destroyed the fragile environment of the desert nomads who form the backbone of Mauritania’s three million population

Hundreds of thousands of them abandoned cattle raising and moved to the towns. Most headed for Nouakchott.

Huge areas of shanty dwellings cluster around the capital. Their residents have no running water, no mains electricity and their homes are constructed out of wrecked cars, tyres, cardboard boxes and anything else they can find.

Many of the structures are semi-permanent as some of the older residents cling to the hope that one-day they may be able to return to the nomadic existence of their youth.

M’barek, a 20 year old unemployed man who lives in Kebba, one of the shanty towns of the poor El mina district of Nouakchott, is incensed that he has to spend his limited cash on buying water.

“Buying a barrel of water to wash clothes and for the family to wash is mad, especially for someone who’s unemployed,” M’barek said.

A 100 litre aluminium barrel of water sells for 200 to 400 Ouguiyas – between 80 cents and US$ 1.60 in an area where whole families survive on less than US$1 per day.

The high cost of water has made bathing a luxury.

“I can’t bathe my children every day, it’s too expensive and I can only wash our clothes once a week – unfortunately though, we don’t have too many clothes,” complained Salma, a mother of eight.

The irony is that these slum dwellers who are forced to buy water by the bucket from mule and donkey carts have to pay up to 15 times more for the life giving liquid than the residents of Nouakchott’s middle class suburbs who enjoy the luxury of piped water.

With residents unable to afford enough water to perform their daily ablutions, diarrhoea epidemics periodically hit the shanty towns. These can prove fatal for the young and the very old. In certain areas, cholera outbreaks occur.

But it is not only Nouakchott that faces water shortages.

The Trarza underground lake provides water for a string of towns in southwestern Mauritania which are now feeling the pinch.

The water from many boreholes has already turning brackish. In some cases, it has become so salty that it can not even be used for irrigation.

Many other desert towns which lie beyond the Trarza lake are also prone to water shortages. These include the oases of Kiffa, Tijikha and Atar, which lie in a sweeping arc 600km east and northeast of the capital

Although these towns rely on rain-fed underground water reserves, in years of low rainfall, their water turns briny and undrinkable. At such times, the state water company SNDE only allows water to run through the taps for two hours each day.

Some towns run completely dry during Mauritania’s eight-month-long dry season.

Things are so bad in Magtaa Lahjar, 400 km east of Nouakchott, that water has to be transported about 100 kilometres by truck. Local cattle herders are then forced to move their stock 150 km south to the Senegal River – the only perennial river in the country.

Residents of Tijikja, which lies 400 km north of river, fear that thirst will decimate their cattle which huddle around the last few drinking holes left in the oasis. They are worried that what little remains of their traditional culture will soon be destroyed.

In Kiffa, where people build houses without windows to keep out the sand and the heat, the water brought through boreholes turns brackish as the temperature rises in September and October, making it unfit for human consumption and too salty even for irrigation.

The Japanese government has been helping Mauritania to sink new boreholes in such areas. However water experts say that these are all too often situated close to the homes of the friends and supporters of President Ould Taya, rather than in the locations where they would secure the best and most reliable water supply.

Last year the government announced that it had been awarded a US$270 million grant by the World Bank and a group of Islamic funds to embark to pipe water from the Senegal river to Nouakchott and a large swathe of southwestern Mauritania.

The ‘Aftout Saheli’ project, seeks to divert water from the river - that marks Mauritania’s southern border with Senegal – and pump it through a purification unit before distributing it by pipeline.

However, its implementation remains blocked because the government of Senegal has made its approval of the project conditional on the resolution of a separate long-standing water dispute between the two countries.

Mauritania has a 400 km coastline and the country’s two largest cities, Nouakchott and the northern port of Nouadhibou, are both by the sea, so the construction of desalinisation plants has also been considered.

Indeed, Nouakchott originally relied on a small desalinisation plant before the Chinese came in to drill bore holes to tap into the city’s underground lake.

However, the cost of providing fuel to run a desalinisation plant big enough to supply the city’s present population would be prohibitive.