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Residents of Poor Areas in Mauritania's Capital Struggle With Water

Residents of poor areas in Mauritania's capital are struggling to get water, as its price increases, while availability decreases. VOA's Nico Colombant has more on the cash-deprived thirsty residents, with reporting by Ebrima Sillah from Nouakchott, in the first part of a series on life in post-election Mauritania, after a coup and decades of dictatorship

In a poor outlying area of Mauritania's capital Nouakchott, residents line up in front of a private tank to get water needed for cooking, drinking and washing.

A liter costs about half a cent, but families say they need about 200 liters a day, which quickly adds up, to nearly $1 a day.

Astou Diop a young cleaning lady who makes about $90 a month says with price increases for everything, including water, life really has become a struggle.

She says the government should do something to lower prices or at least force employers to pay higher salaries.

Mauritania is estimated to be 75 percent desert.

Expanding desertification has pushed more people into cities, increasing the concentrated demand for water.

Reports by the United Nations indicate its swelling capital, Nouakchott, and other Atlantic Ocean beachside towns, rely on the ancient underground Trarza Lake and the Idini well field which are steadily shrinking.

Piped water only exists in more affluent neighborhoods, but that water is often cut.

John Coker, a refugee from Sierra Leone, comes daily to the private tank in the Sen-Khem neighborhood.

"You know here is the desert too," said Coker. "I do not want you to forget. Water problems are very tough. Even not only in Sen-Khem [neighborhood]. At times, you even see those people from the capital, they even come to Sen-Khem to find water."

Coker says he makes money as a painter, but that water costs really drain any savings he is trying to accumulate to get back to Sierra Leone.

"It is affecting me greatly," he said. "Because, if you do not have money, if you go to that tap, they will not credit you. For that place, it is cash and carry. I have never been so lucky for free water."

Those who are too far from private tanks, or who have a bit more money not to have to go themselves, rely on water being carried door to door by donkey carts.

The head of a non-governmental organization which focuses on sustainable water development for the rural and urban poor, Hadrami Ould Khattri, says not having piped water makes life very expensive and hazardous.

"They are paying a higher price for it, for some water, which really the quality of it, is the worst that you can find in the nation, in terms of cleanliness, in terms of hygiene, in terms of the standards of drinkable water," said Khattri.

Khattri gives some more details as to why this is the case.

"They transport it into very dirty bottles," he said. "But the conditions of transportation, and also the way it is poured from the water taps with dirty hands, and you can even find animals, donkeys and dogs drinking from the same place that they will get their water for their drinkable use, and cooking, which is really a desperate situation."

He says diarrhea and cholera epidemics are frequent.

Khattri is hoping Mauritania's post-coup elected government will treat this problem with the seriousness it deserves, and that more sharing of available resources will eventually take place.

"Without water, there is no life at all," said Khattri. "The government really needs to put a policy with the local elected officials and the representatives of these people to find the best way to make these poor people access drinkable water."

The government says it has been obtaining loans to get a pipeline built from the Senegal River to ensure the availability of drinking water in Nouakchott over the next few decades.

But that river has been drying up, with rains that appear to be getting more infrequent in recent years.

Desalination of ocean water is also being studied, but that project seems too expensive for now.