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In Mali, water is a source of life

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  • Climate and disaster risks
  • Community resilience

How can you help NGOs and citizens in Mali better stand up for their rights when it comes to water and sanitation? The Watershed partnership uses a whole range of activities to solve the root causes intended to address a number of root causes of water issues: in particular water quality and waste management and access to water and sanitation services for all Malians. It does this by strengthening NGOs and making them aware of the rights that already exist on the basis of laws and policies and by lobbying national and local politicians.

Mali is a country with a strong oral tradition; with griots who tell their stories, with many musicians who have conquered the international music world. Mali is, in fact, the birthplace of the blues.

A lot of songs and stories are about water, says Seriba Konare of Wetlands International at his office in the capital Bamako. According to him, that is not surprising in a Sahel country where water is a necessity. “We have a music style called badjourou. Many songs are about water and in the Touareg language there is a well-known song called Aman Iman: “water is life”.

“Many traditional stories,” he continues, “are about the Niger River, also known as Ba Djoliba in our local Bambara language, which means” blood. ” The river got that nickname because the water that flows through it is so important that you can compare it to blood in the human body.”

The Watershed – empowering citizens strategic partnership is managed from the Wetlands International office. It is intended to address a number of root causes of water issues: in particular water quality and waste management and access to water and sanitation services for all Malians. It wants to do this by strengthening NGOs and making them aware of the rights that already exist on the basis of laws and policies and by lobbying national and local politicians.

Scarce water sources

The work has not become easier in recent years. “Water problems are becoming increasingly complicated,” says Konare. “When I was little, we could still drink water from the Niger River. If you do that now, you will have stomach problems within an hour.

Afou Chantal Bengaly (photo by ViceVersa)
Afou Chantal Bengaly (photo ViceVersa)

“This has reduced access for poor people to drinking water. The population of Bamako alone has grown from one and a half to five million in the last twenty years. They throw an enormous amount of waste in the river, which causes pollution.”




His colleague Afou Chantal Bengaly, the programme coordinator of Watershed, nods. She lists a number of major issues that have an impact on water problems: “Mali has to deal with climate change, population growth and with a crisis in the north. Due to the instability and attacks by jihadists there, more and more Malians are withdrawing to the centre of the country, resulting in increasing aggressiveness around scarce water resources.

“In the past, the system was balanced, with farmers who needed grass to let their cattle graze and farmers who had to spray their fields and were dependent on the rain. Due to climate change, there is no good grass anymore and the rains sometimes stay away for a long time.

“That leads to increasing pressure on scarce resources and the urge to survive among the different groups. For a solution, you need politics and good policy which look at all these problems together. But unfortunately, that is not the case.”

Public goods

With the help of a PowerPoint presentation, they talk about the Watershed programme. The typical jargon that is only used within development cooperation flows abundantly, with “capacity building” as the winner as it is coming up in every other sentence.

In order to achieve its goals, Watershed wants to improve governance in the sector. To this end, it cooperates with local NGOs, such as civil society organisations in the field of water and sanitation in Mali, and with a network of journalists specialising in water issues.

And as if the topic is not complex enough, there is also a political crisis. “There is insecurity in the country,” Bengaly explains, “and that has a negative impact on the economy and it is weakening institutions, including those for water and sanitation. The public funds earmarked for this are declining, the infrastructure is deteriorating, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement projects due to the insecurity.”

If something has become clear, then it is that it is not the paperwork: that seems fine in Mali. It is about the gap between theory and practice. There are laws and regulations about ensuring water quality, but they are hardly known by NGOs, citizens and sometimes not even by parliamentarians. There are laws for appropriate waste management, but they are not enforced.

Budget commitments have also been made for water quality management and adequate waste management, but it is not clear to anyone whether this is actually being implemented. The subject of water is divided among several ministries, which does not make for coherent policy. And so Bengaly and Konare can go on and on.

The numbers speak for themselves

Their arguments are confirmed by Boureima Tabalaba, the coordinator of the national coalition of NGOs in this sector in Mali. “The lack of accountability is the biggest problem,” he says. “Our constitution contains provisions that environmental protection and access to water and sanitation are fundamental rights. In speeches, the government always emphasises that these are two absolute priorities, but to check if that is really the case, you have to look at the numbers.”

He says: “The latest figures show that 68 per cent of Malians have access to drinking water and only 32 per cent to good sanitation. Another reason why I doubt our government’s commitment is that only 2.6 per cent of the government budget is reserved for it; far too little to deal with the problems properly.

“The national policy plan also states that there must be access to water in every village with more than four hundred inhabitants. We know that there are more than a thousand villages in Mali without water, so you know that something is wrong.”

The Watershed partnership works in three areas: in and around Bamako, in the Mopti region and in the region around Segou. Bengaly explains that they focus mainly on capacity building of NGOs, the government and politicians, and the media, both locally and nationally.

She lists a wide range of activities to achieve the goals: from ‘producing evidence’ in the form of studies, analyses, policy notes and video documentaries to lobbying and advocacy through dialogue meetings, personal meetings with parliamentarians, field visits with political delegations, multi-stakeholder forums, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts and visibility on national television. “We are able to speak to every minister or parliamentarian in person,” she says without pride.

Concretely, the partnership has managed a number of things in recent years, says Konare. The most important is the protection of the Niger River. “Many companies and people in and around Bamako used machines to search for gold in it, which caused a lot of pollution and that had become a serious problem. Because of the lobby from our programme, the government has now banned it.”

But more importantly, Watershed is a serious discussion partner in the new water and sanitation policy that is currently being developed, Bengaly adds. “It’s the first revision since 2006. Our government has hired two World Bank consultants for it. Watershed has been involved in the new plans from the design phase and the consultants ask us for input.

“We have been able to raise important points for us about the relationship between human rights and water, the importance of women’s participation and the importance of properly informing citizens about the conservation of water.

“It is necessary that national water and sanitation policies contain all these elements. We can give our input on the draft proposals and meanwhile lobby the responsible ministries to get these issues in the final proposal.”

View the full article here. 

Written by: Marc Broere and Ayaan Abukar – for the Dutch development magazine ViceVersa

Translation of this article was provided by Tettje van Daalen, IRC