Tackling Drought in West Africa: Training Illiterate Communities to be Water Experts

Editors Note: This post was authored by Sarah Dobsevage, Director of Strategic Partnerships at WaterAid America. In her post, Sarah, who heads up WaterAid’s partnerships with foundations and corporations in the US, describes her organization’s work with drought-prone communities in Burkina Faso, particularly around training local people to develop the skills needed to address WASH problems. 

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. Twelve feet down and there’s still no water.

A dried-up riverbed in Imbina, Burkina Faso. There are several holes where people have tried to dig for water. Photo credit: WaterAid/ Andrew McConnell - Imbina, Burkina Faso

A dried-up riverbed in Imbina, Burkina Faso. There are several holes where people have tried to dig for water. Credit: WaterAid/ Andrew McConnell – Imbina, Burkina Faso

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. Keeping their livestock alive becomes a daunting challenge.

These Sudano-Sahelian communes are characterized by a brief rainy season, typically 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.

In 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.

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, the majority of the soon-to-be experts in whom WaterAid is investing  are illiterate. Even so, 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 prioritize simple ways of gathering information that can help people plan their water usage for the long term.

In addition to using dip meters to collect groundwater data, we are also employing 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 usage.

Diao Hassan, President of the Water Users Association, with his official water usage record. Credit: WaterAid/ Andrew McConnell - Nabitenga, Burkina Faso

Diao Hassan, President of the Water Users Association, with his official water usage record. Credit: WaterAid/ Andrew McConnell – Nabitenga, Burkina Faso

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

It’s 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 analyze the information from all sides, and make joint decisions governing water use.

While 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 and/or interpret data that might otherwise be too technical, and low literacy levels, especially among women.

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

We all know that water is at the core of long-term development. That’s why we’re especially grateful to 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. Though the climates are tough, the rewards are great. Never has it been so important to support local leadership in making sure that they have the skills and tools they need to effectively manage the water resources that are vital to poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability.

A family with their day’s water consumption - 105 gallons for everything from drinking and washing, to cooking, feeding livestock and watering crops. Credit: WaterAid / Andrew McConnell - Nabitenga, Burkina Faso

A family with their day’s water consumption – 105 gallons for everything from drinking and washing, to cooking, feeding livestock and watering crops. Credit: WaterAid / Andrew McConnell – Nabitenga, Burkina Faso

For more information please visit www.wateraid.org.