First drops flow from dam to help thirsty capital

Landlocked Burkina Faso has started pumping water from a new reservoir, bringing much-needed extra supplies to the capital Ouagadougou.

Until now only seven out of ten residents in the city of 1.2 million people enjoyed access to safe drinking water.

But water board officials said the multi-million dollar Ziga dam, which lies about 40 km south of Ouagadougou, was now pumping 1,700 cubic metres of water every hour, boosting the city's water supply by about 70 percent.

"For the past 20 years, water problems have given us a headache, but today is a crucial step and I hope that with the same determination and energy we will meet the drinking water needs of the population of Ouagadougou not only for today but in the long term," President Blaise Compaore said on Saturday after turning on a tap to release the first gush of water from the dam.

Ouagadougou has seen its population almost treble in the last 20 years, exploding to 1.2 million today from just 425,000 in 1984.

This growth spurt has far outstripped water resources in this semi-arid country which lies in the savannah belt of the Sahel, just south of the Sahara desert.

Bans on washing vehicles, watering gardens and filling swimming pools to conserve water are common.

Private vendors have raised prices dramatically and residents say queuing up for water in the early hours of the morning has become commonplace.

Water rationing at the end of the dry season, which usually started in April, has been starting earlier and earlier in recent years.

Until the new 80 square km reservoir came on stream last weekend, Ouagadougou had a daily water shortfall of 15,000 cubic metres.

But the Ziga dam project, whose total cost is 150 billion CFA francs (US$ 294 million), aims to change all that.

Officials said that by 2006, once a second phase of the water supply scheme is completed, the flow rate of water from the new dam on the Nakambe river will almost double to 3,000 cubic metres an hour.

Over the next two years, they also expect the number of private water customers in Ouagadougou to double to 100,000, while an extra 400 public fountains will be built, bringing the total number of public water supply points in the city to more than 1,000.

"The water nightmare is over," cheered one local resident.

The National Water and Sewerage Company (ONEA) says by 2015, the Ziga dam will be supplying 9,000 cubic metres an hour - four times the volume which ONEA was able to distribute in Ouagadougou before its construction

"There will be water for Ouagadougou's population even in 30 years time. The suffering ends today People will no longer have to queue up for hours to get water , sometimes late at night," Lamine Kouate, the director general of ONEA, said.

But some observers are less confident that the new dam will provide a long term solution to the capital's water supply problems.

The U.S.-based group consumer advocacy group Public Citizen noted on its website the fervour surrounding the opening of the Ziga dam.

But it warned: "Sadly, the projections indicate that by 2015 demand from Ouagadougou will have again outstripped new demand from Ziga. Long-term it seems the water crisis here is deepening."