Appeal: In Mali, villagers have to walk miles to fetch water. And then drinking it may kill them

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The Independent Online

When the water in the wells ran out in the searing heat of the Malian dry season, Awa had two options. She could spend all day carrying buckets of water on her head from a village a mile away, or she could queue all day to buy water from unscrupulous vendors. "Children used to get diseases because the water we drank wasn't clean," Awa says. "They got bilharzia and diarrhoea."

But Awa is one of the lucky ones. She lives in Nafadji, a mud-brick village on the outskirts of the Malian capital, Bamako. And WaterAid has targeted two main areas in Mali as a priority for providing clean water to the poor: the villages, such as Nafadji on the perimeter of the main cities, and those in rural areas.

For years, the water-carriers of Mali have walked for miles through the brush for a drink that can kill. Malaria, from mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water, and water-borne diseases such as cholera are almost endemic in the West African country, which is among the poorest in the world.

And it is the women of Mali, because of their traditional role as water collectors for their families, who suffer the most.

Hamidou Maïga, the representative of the British charity WaterAid in Mali, tells of a village near the border with Burkina Faso he visited a few years ago, where the water was infected with guinea worm in the rainy season. The worms enter the body through the water, and can grow up to 3ft long then break through the skin, often through the feet. Some victims have more than 20 worms erupting painfully from their bodies.

"In Douentza district I shall never forget what I saw," Mr Maïga says. "Women were walking 3km to get water in a mountainous region. They were carrying a 3kg weight on their heads, at least three times a day in the sun, with very little shade. How much they must have suffered from guinea worm. They were walking to find water that's not even clean."

Mr Maïga says the solution to eradicating guinea worm was simple: clean water. "Four years later, a standpipe was put in. Now, there are no cases of guinea worm."

WaterAid believes nearly half of the 12 million population of Mali lack access to safe water, and often have no choice but to drink from polluted sources such as unprotected wells and ponds. Nafadji, on the north-western outskirts of Bamako, used to have one waterpoint for 4,500 people. Pressure has increased on the supply as people move closer to the towns and build "temporary" houses which eventually become permanent. Working with the city water board, a community health centre and a non-governmental organisation, WaterAid now provides water, sanitation and hygiene to four districts of Bamako. One waterpoint now serves 500 inhabitants in Nafadji.

The installation of a clean-water standpipe in Awa's community has transformed her life. She has become the treasurer of the community's water committee and improved the finances of her neighbours. They used to have to pay vendors CFAFr50 (5p) to CFAFr75 for 20 litres; she charges CFAFr10.

And to that Awa has time on her hands, she is training to be a health worker, and she and her neighbours have become active in local politics to improve sanitation. Children, who used to spend much of their day collecting water, are going to school.

"Now we are free," Awa says. "We have time to do the housework, cleaning and also small businesses. Before, we spent all day fetching water. Now Nafadji women can go out first thing in the morning to go to market and sell things."

After WaterAid sets up the water-point, the local communities is responsible for maintenance and repairs. In Nafadji, the water payments are enough to cover the system repairs. But Mr Maïga says providing clean water is not the end of the problem. "Sanitation is even worse than water."

In Mali, only 15 per cent of the 12 million population have adequate sanitation facilities. In some villages, only the head man has a walled latrine. Traditional latrines are unspeakable. In rural areas, almost a quarter have no set lavatory. Awa says: "There was often dirty water in the street, so we ended up walking in stagnant water. Before we had proper latrines, the old ones would sometimes overflow so we were walking in the runoff from the latrines too."

Danger is everywhere. Children can contaminate water by lifting a cup from the floor and scooping a drink from a bucket, Mr Maiga says. "It's not enough to give them clean water, it's not enough to give them sanitation; you also have to change their behaviour." So as well as financing the construction of clean water networks, the charity educates and builds the skills of communities.

In Dialakoraba, another of WaterAid's Bamako projects, the charity helped drill one well and rehabilitate three old ones. Villagers selected a team to handle sanitation and to organise an awareness campaign. The head of the village, Moussa dié Samaké, told WaterAid: "Human beings cannot exist without water and health. You have brought us the essence of human life. Thank you."