Cameroon is endowed with abundant water resources. From Lake Chad in the north to the Atlantic Ocean in the south, it has numerous rivers, lakes and springs. In fact, Cameroon has Africa's largest hydro-electric potential after the DRC. But in most parts of the country, there is little safe drinking water. That leads people to unsafe water from wells and streams.
The United Nations Development Program says less than half of Cameroon's estimated 18 million inhabitants have access to safe drinking water. The situation is especially serious in the most populated and rapidly expanding urban centers like Douala.
Taps often dry up for months and people have to depend on water from wells built dangerously close to latrines and cesspools. Others drink water sold on the streets – without knowing where it came from.
Water-related diseases like cholera and typhoid are endemic. The following comments come from "people on the street" interviews.
-- "Some years back, I had typhoid because of the poor quality of drinking water here in Douala."
-- "Well, I have to admit I face problems with drinking water here in Douala. I don't drink tap water and I have to buy bottled water. I don't want to come down with typhoid or cholera or anything like that. Each time you turn on the tap, the water is brown."
-- "I think the government has to do something right now. I have close family members who died two years ago because of cholera."
In 2004, a cholera outbreak in Douala swept through the country, killing about 70 people. Many feared a recurrence, with more and more people showing symptoms of the disease.
NGOs like Plan International have stepped up campaigns to warn the public of the dangers of unsafe drinking water.
And yet, the country is rich in water resources. Cameroon has two rainy seasons and many sources of underground and surface water.
Experts blame water scarcity on rapid population growth, chaotic urbanization, increased agricultural activity, industrial pollution and climate change.
All across the country, safe drinking water has become a luxury. The few homes with clean water piped in are regularly besieged by thirsty men, women and children waiting in long queues to buy water for their households at 51 cents per cubic meter.
The secretary general in the Ministry of Water and Energy, Fritz Gerald Nasako, says the challenges are huge today because the government spent decades grappling with economic crises. So it cut back on public investment, including construction and maintenance of drinking water infrastructure.
"In fact there are a lot of contemporary challenges" Nasako says. "One of these challenges is rapid urbanization. The population increases at a geometric rate and overtakes the capacity we have to supply water. You know there came a time when the government -- because of the economic and financial crisis -- investment was not being carried out. But the government is not folding its hands" he says."
Part of the government effort has been the split of the state-owned Cameroon Water Corporation. Last year it was divided into the government run Cameroon Water Utilities Corporation, CAMWATER - and the privatized Camerounaise des Eaux - run by a Moroccan consortium handling distribution.
The government hopes the deal will improve the situation as both companies build more water production units and expand distribution.
Gaston Meka manages communications at the Cameroon Water Utilities Corporation. He says, "Since the privatization of the National Water Corporation two years ago, we have now a new configuration of the sector and many multilateral donors to help us with grants. So now, we have many possibilities to ameliorate the access of the population to potable water."
Meka adds, "We're constructing a modern water unit. By the end of this year, Douala will have a new production unit and we're also doing social connections for people who don't have enough money to get access to potable water. We hope to realize about 50.000 new connections by the end of next year."
In the meantime Cameroonians continue to complain, saying past promises have failed to materialize.
However, donors like the World Bank and the African Development Bank are funding multi-million-dollar projects to improve access to safe drinking water. They're also disinfecting wells countrywide.