All desert and river, Mali is at the heart of lands which once belonged to the great empires of Africa. Home to a diverse, tolerant population, it still pulses with the rituals, traditions, and rich culture which are its heritage. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries.
Despite recent political instability, Mali was for years considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Over the past 20 years the government has engaged in economic reforms designed to spur growth in the country and they have met with some success. Even with the price of Mali’s primary crop, cotton, falling, GDP has still steadily grown in recent years. However drought and desertification as well as limited access to clean water and sanitation have combined to make food insecurity as well as waterborne disease common.
For over ten years AWF partner Africare has been at work on their Goundam Food Security Initiative (GFSI). They focused efforts on the Goundam and Dire cercles in the Timbuktu region of Northern Mali, areas which had a structural food deficit- a state in which it was not possible for local people to grow enough food to feed themselves, nor was it possible for them to make sufficient income by other means to purchase the food they needed. The GFSI was a comprehensive effort designed to address some of the barriers to food sufficiency, to increase incomes, and to improve the health of those in the region.
Mali’s rainfall is sparse and unreliable at best and two-thirds of its northern land is desert. In a country where only four percent of the land is arable, still some eighty percent depend on agriculture for survival. Despite these difficulties productive farming is possible by using water from the Niger River to irrigate the fields. As part of the GFSI Africare helped to build “irrigated perimeters” which have yielded significant crops of rice, wheat, and vegetables and greatly contributed to overall food security.
Ironically, it is this access to the river that left many farming communities without sources of safe, potable drinking water. The government and many development agencies focused more attention on drier regions with no access to any sort of water. This left villagers with wells which would often run dry in the hot months, forcing villagers to drink contaminated water from the same river they use to irrigate their fields. Rates of waterborne disease and diarrhea were high, disproportionately affecting children.
The African Well Fund moved in 2008 to fund wells in areas which had been previously overlooked. Seven wells were proposed for seven villages in areas where Africare implemented the GFSI project. In total, 11,150 were to be served, with the water supporting both health and nutrition as well as local income generation by allowing small-scale activities such as raising rabbits and planting vegetable gardens to take place.
Half of the wells in the area were installed by Africare as many as twenty years ago, with all still operational. Because of the GFSI initiative, vehicles and personnel were already in place, making construction still more efficient.
Over the course of seven months, Africare was able to build six wells which served over 4,800 villagers. Work on the seventh well, which was to serve the largest village, had to be abandoned after available equipment was unable to reach water. It was covered awaiting future completion. Still, this success rate of 85.7 percent stands well above the average Malian well success rate of 60%.
The field report from the project expresses the transformative power of the new wells:
Mariama Walett is one of the most dynamic women in the village of Saobomo, and had long been looking for a way to get a new well in the village. The single well they had before did not have sufficient water for the 950 inhabitants of the village, and would even go dry for part of the year. As a women’s leader, her efforts to get a new well surpassed even those of the village chief. When AWF made it possible to dig this new well in her village, she volunteered to head the village water and sanitation committee. Thanks to her efforts, the entire village came together to work on the well with the masons until it was finished. After the water had been tested and declared fit for human consumption, she was given the honour, before the village chief, to draw the first bucket of water from the well. She drank from it, and declared to the crowd:
“This is the happiest day in my life. We have waited so long to get this well and now it’s a reality. Thanks to those who made it possible for us. Thanks to Africare and its partners for this gift of life to our village. Thanks for giving us life, because water is life.”