Tackling drought in West Africa: training communities to be water experts

In drought-prone areas of Burkina Faso, WaterAid has been training local people to manage water supplies and address WASH issues. Sarah Dobsevage, Director of Strategic Partnerships at WaterAid America, describes how we are working with communities to build their resilience to water challenges.


27 Mar 2015

It hasn’t rained for eight months

It’s 120°F. And it hasn’t rained for eight months. The rivers and boreholes have run dry. Searching for water, people are forced to dig holes in river beds with their bare hands. 12 feet down and there’s still no water.

Nearing the end of a seemingly interminably long dry season, people living in drought-prone areas of West Africa are working hard to find enough water for their families to drink, cook and bathe with. Keeping their livestock alive becomes a daunting challenge.

These Sudano-Sahelian communes are characterised by a brief rainy season, typically lasting from June to September, that is increasingly unpredictable in duration and quantity of rain. Annual rainfall ranges from 12 inches in the North region of Burkina Faso, to as much as 50 inches in the South-West.

By contrast, during the dry season temperatures soar, rivers evaporate and groundwater levels drop – just when people need water the most to survive the heat. A few scattered boreholes serve both people and livestock, putting too much pressure on water supplies. As groundwater levels fall, even the deeper boreholes may not have sufficient water to last communities until the end of the dry season.

Bintou Koura, 40, collects dirty water from a partially dried riverbed in Imbina, Burkina Faso, October 2014.
Bintou Koura, 40, collects dirty water from a partially dried riverbed in Imbina, Burkina Faso. Photo: WaterAid/ Andrew McConnell 

Training new water experts to tackle sustainability

Making sure that drought-prone communities have access to water year-round is no easy task, but it can be done. In 14 communities across Burkina Faso, WaterAid is not only investing in additional boreholes, new sand dams and improvements to existing wells, but is also (more importantly!) investing in local people – giving them the skills they need to become water experts adept in effectively managing their own precious resources.

Like most of their peers, most of the people with whom WaterAid is working have had little formal education. Despite this, they are learning how to monitor rainfall using rain gauges and measure groundwater levels in wells using tools such as dip meters that make a sound when they hit water. The skills they learn encompass traditional methods and modern technology, from GPS and cellphones to graphs and maps etched in the dust. The emphasis is on straightforward and sustainable solutions; we prioritise simple ways to gather information that can help people plan their water use for the long term.

In addition to using dip meters to collect groundwater data, we are also using a more advanced technology, where water loggers are inserted into boreholes. Water loggers automatically record water levels every two hours, providing a real-time dashboard on water resources and use.

Together, this information will enable a community to pre-empt threats, observe annual changes and spot emerging data patterns, all of which affect their village. Water experts can then help the community make informed, collective decisions about how much water can be used and at what times of day.

This is a simple yet effective way of safeguarding access to this vital resource for everyone, every day of the year. When water levels are low, for example, the community may decide to temporarily halt non-essential activities that use water, such as brick-making; alternatively, they may choose to begin rationing water.

These decisions aren’t taken lightly. Monitoring and Documentation committees chaired by the town’s mayor are set up at the commune level and include community representatives, local government authorities, and staff from both WaterAid and WaterAid’s local partners. Each committee boasts a technical unit, charged with controlling and validating data, identifying any weaknesses, and offering technical support to the community when needed. Communities are also aided by regional agricultural directorates that further assist with data interpretation. Working together, community assemblies provide a forum to collectively share and analyse the information from all sides, and make joint decisions governing water use.

Although it may sound complex, this multidimensional approach helps to overcome some of the most common challenges communities face, such as the inability to plot, monitor or interpret technical data and low literacy levels, especially among women.

WaterAid is also teaming up with local and national governments, making sure data collected at the village level can be fed into government records that will help build a national picture which informs future interventions.

We all know that water is at the core of long-term development. That’s why we’re especially grateful for the continuing support of the Margaret A Cargill Foundation, which enables WaterAid to train new water experts in some of the hardest to reach communities in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Although the climates are tough, the rewards are great. Never has it been so important to support local leadership in making sure people have the skills and tools they need to effectively manage the water resources vital to poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Sarah Dobsevage is Director of Strategic Partnerships at WaterAid America. For global policy, practice and advocacy updates and discussion, follow @wateraid on Twitter.

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