In rainy Gabon, some seek water 'like in the desert'

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Gabonese mother Jeannine Bibila is exasperated by constantly dry taps in a country that has tremendous potential for water supply.

"Here, to have water, you need to search. It's like being in the desert."

"In the desert, you don't find water easily. Sometimes, we go two weeks or even a month without water," explains Bibila, washing a huge pile of laundry at a public fountain in Kinguele, northeast of Libreville.

With streets muddied by rains, Kinguele is one of 85 districts in the capital that are officially described as "under-integrated" in development terms.

When the public fountain works, the water draws people from all round the neighbourhood. "When we see water like this, we're happy. We grab everything and come here," said Jeannine's neighbour, who asked not to be named.

Local people filled their bottles, buckets and jerry cans, while children enjoyed gliding through the jets of water in the strong and humid heat.

Without such water, Jeannine explained, "We go to the wells, but only to wash clothes and kitchen things. We can't drink that water. There have been times when soldiers brought us water. Here, we're suffering."

In December, residents of Kinguele showed their discontent by erecting barricades and blocking roads after several days "without a drop of water from the tap," said Bijou, from the neighbouring de Kinguele-Transfo district. The government reacted by sending military engineers with supplies.

Then the government warned the Company of Water and Energy of Gabon (SEEG), a subsidiary of the French group Veolia which holds 51 percent of its shares, to do its job or face losing the contract signed with Veolia in 1997.

At the end of a 20-year contract, the SEEG is expected to provide, transport and distribute drinking water and electricity throughout this nation of 1.5 million people, most of whom live in Libreville or in the economic capital in the south, Port-Gentil.

On its web site, Veolia states that it supplies 1.03 million residents with drinking water and 1.26 million with electricity, and says that the number of connections has grown by 50 percent since 1997, while the number of people with access to drinking water has grown by 70 percent.

The minister for energy and hydraulic resources, Regis Imongault, said on Sunday that President Ali Bongo "has given a mandate to the government so that within two years, people will be aware of very clear improvement in Libreville and other main towns."

Speaking on television a day before World Water Day on Sunday, Imongault said that "in a period of seven years, we should arrive at the level of 100-percent access to drinking water in all of Gabon."

In the heart of the capital, at the Venez-Voir slum where children only have badly potholed roads to play in, people see little relation between public announcements and statistics and the daily reality.

"They talk, they just talk. There are water cuts all the time. I've been here for nine years and it's always like that," said Aicha, a saleswoman from Mali.

"We have dirty clothes, cooking to do, we have to give the family something to drink and we don't have any water. You don't imagine that Gabon is like this before you come here."

The country straddles the equator, has abundant rain and a large number of rivers and streams crossing its tropical forests. Imongault recalled that the government has announced hydrolectric schemes to provide water and "clean, low cost energy."

At Avea in the northwest of the capital, Hilda describes the same problems of access.

"The problem is widespread in Libreville. Everybody suffers for water, even those with taps in their houses. They pay their bills and there are cuts in water supply every day."

Apart from these cuts, flooding and pollution by untreated water affect many "under-integrated" parts of Libreville, where marshlands have become built-up residential areas because of a rural exodus and the arrival of migrants hoping to find jobs and higher pay in the oil-rich country.