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At the encroaching edge of the Sahara Desert, community tensions are tightly bound up with the search for water.
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Water has long been at the centre of conflict in the northern regions of Mali, in West Africa. This vast water-scarce area spans 827,000 square kilometres (320,000 square miles) between the Sahara in the north and the Sahel in the south – in total, about two-thirds of the national territory. “One can travel tens or even hundreds of kilometers without seeing a single water facility. And when there is water, it is not of good quality,” says Almahady Cissé, the head of Cri de Cœur, a local NGO working in northern Mali.

As the Sahara Desert advances south, finding water is becoming increasingly urgent to ease the strain on local community tensions. Water is the source of many conflicts in across the Sahara, within nations and between them. Here in Mali, local people and NGOs are digging a network of micro-wells in an effort to reduce tensions, provide for local communities and keep up with shifting populations from internal displacement.

The causes of the conflict in Mali are complex, but one thing is certain: water shortages raise tensions, and in turn tensions make access to water more difficult.

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In some parts of Mali it rains only once a year, especially in the Saharan region. The Sahel receives more rain, but not evenly – some areas are prone to flooding, while others do not receive enough rain. “People who live in the places where there is less water seek to take advantage of the water elsewhere, which sometimes causes conflicts,” says Cissé.

When humanitarian teams travel, they are kidnapped, often people die. So the conflict worsened a situation that was already precarious – Almahady Cissé

In the north of the country, economic activities put additional pressure on water shortages, straining tensions. “In these regions, people are either a farmer in a village, or a nomadic herder,” says Cissé. “So conflicts arise around the water plants between these community groups.” A lack of water can lead to brawls, sometimes resulting in loss of life.

An insurgency that began in 2012, led by a coalition of jihadists and Tuareg separatists, has worsened the tensions. In recent years, the conflicts between local communities have become more violent in arid villages in the northern regions.

Boreholes typically run around six metres deep to access the groundwater supply (Credit: Alamy)

Boreholes typically run around six metres deep to access the groundwater supply (Credit: Alamy)

Today local tensions have escalated over water resources until humanitarian workers are no longer able to access these remote regions. “Insecurity is a hindrance for humanitarian workers because to do a drilling, you need a team of surveyors, a team of hydraulic engineers to do geological studies,” says Cissé. “When these teams travel, they are kidnapped, often people die. So the conflict worsened a situation that was already precarious.” Some are still making efforts to carry out drilling in hard-to-reach areas, but it is not meeting the need for water, he adds.

The tensions compound the need for a local solution. One solution that has been trialled since 2013 is micro-wells. These are boreholes are about six metres deep, and can be used to raise groundwater through simple containers, such as buckets, or using a manual or motorised pump.

While drilling a hole for water might seem simple, making a viable borehole is more complex than you would expect. A 2009 report by the Rural Water Supply Network found that between 10% and 65% of handpumps in 20 African countries weren’t working at the time of a spot check. The reasons that wells fail include poor siting, design or construction. Finding the right site is particularly important: the availability of groundwater varies greatly over short distances, so placing a borehole on one side of a settlement or the other could make a large difference to whether or not it works.

In rural areas, the technique adopted to make a borehole is manual drilling, also known as “Tare – Tare” which means “welcome”, in two of Mali’s languages, Bambara and Fulani. Manual drilling costs about seven times less than mechanical drilling, but it is as labour-intensive as it sounds. The methods used to dig out the wells include “percussion”, which involves striking the ground rock with a pick, chisel or the end of a pipe, “rotation”, which involves grinding or tearing at the surface, or when available using a water-jet to blast downwards through the earth.

The process of digging a well can be gruelling, but if it is done well and sited correctly, it can help to provide more water and ease tensions (Credit: Getty Images)

The process of digging a well can be gruelling, but if it is done well and sited correctly, it can help to provide more water and ease tensions (Credit: Getty Images)

Once a borehole is in place, its success also depends on how it is managed. Local organisations including Cri de Cœur aim to promote governance by educating people on the management of existing boreholes and water. This includes, for example, ensuring that the group managing the well is impartial, and serves all communities using it – nomadic pastoralists and village farmers alike.

Saharan frontier

Climate change is part of the water problem in the northern regions, which face the advance of the Sahara Desert. “Areas that used to be green are less and less green today. In the riverbed, the areas that were navigable are no longer navigable now because they are overrun with sand,” says Ousmane Maïga, a resident of Gao who operates a small vegetable garden.

Sedentary communities in the north can no longer cultivate well, he says. “It’s raining late, that’s why people are often forced to water their plants. And when they water and the plants start to grow, there are suddenly surprising floods that destroy all,” says Maïga, adding that the nomadic pastoralists are in the same situation. “All the communities are affected by poverty.”

In Maïga’s neighbourhood, a micro-well has given easier access to water, so he does not have to travel miles to fetch it from the river. But while boreholes improve access, they aren’t enough to fully relieve water stress. The insecurity in the area leads people to cut down the remaining trees to make a living selling them for firewood, says Maïga. Because there are fewer trees, the soil isn’t able to retain as much water, which in turn risks exacerbating existing conflicts.

The persistence of wider conflict imposed by the insurgency that began in 2012 has provoked a flow of internally displaced persons in the Mopti region further south, putting more pressure on water resources. As of June 2020, there were 250,000 internally displaced people in Mopti and its surrounding area, according to the UN.

In Malian culture, girls and women are responsible for bringing water, so inaccessible pumps and drought disproportionately affect them (Credit: Getty)

In Malian culture, girls and women are responsible for bringing water, so inaccessible pumps and drought disproportionately affect them (Credit: Getty)

The hamlet of Dialangou is in the midst of this arid area, 7km (4.3 miles) from the town of Mopti. The population has rapidly grown from 400 to more than 1,400 residents, due to internal displacement. This growth meant that the quantity of drinking water was no longer sufficient, and the pumps were far from the village. Limited access to clean water had an impact on the hygiene and health of children in the village. Lack of water has promoted the spread of water-borne diseases, and also hampered children’s education. This educational impact particularly affects girls, who in Malian culture are responsible for the fetching of water.

Dutch researcher Christine van Wijk-Sijbesma from the International Water and Sanitation Center writes that in the family, cultural factors, such as isolation, household composition and the distribution of work influence the distribution of chore of collecting water. “Girls get involved in this activity from an early age, depending on the workload and mobility of their mothers,” she writes. “In polygamous households, the more difficult tasks tend to be delegated to the younger women.”

A manual pump installed in March 2020 in Dialangou allows residents to avoid having to use water from the pond near the village, whose troubled waters were a source of major health problems, including diarrheal diseases such as cholera and schistosomiasis.

So far the micro-wells seem to be working. The water from the Dialangou borehole was analysed by the Mopti Regional Water Laboratory this year and the results showed that water met the required quality standards in Mali.

A total of 161 boreholes have now been drilled in the Mopti region using the manual technique. But the scale of the challenge remaining is still huge. Nationally, almost a quarter of the population does not have access to clean water, according to the international NGO Water Aid.

Local authorities, communities and NGOs working to create micro-wells are up against constant challenges. The more an area is in need of a well, the greater local tensions are likely to be, making its construction more difficult. “In some areas, it is impossible to do anything given the insecurity that reigns,” says Cissé.

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