YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - The queue of residents of Yaounde water for water begins forming outside the presidential palace at about 4 a.m., before the sun rises on this capital city of 2.4 million people. As the day goes by, hundreds of people from across the city come with their buckets and jerry cans as the line stretches into the distance until long after dark, even unto midnight.
That has been the daily routine for some time.
Carrefour du Palais, the main junctions outside the presidency, has become the unintended face of a severe water scarcity that’s been affecting the Cameroon capital for more than three months. It’s one of the few places in Yaounde where water still runs uninterrupted.
Cameroon is crisscrossed by many rivers that run from the country’s mountainous north to the south. It is believed to have one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water. But for more than three months, millions in the Cameroon capital have gone without it.
Water shortage is a national problem
Taps have run dry in most parts of the city. In the best scenario, water comes for only a few hours, usually at night. Those who cannot come to Carrefour du Palais - or to other regularly supplied places like military barracks - have turned to wells, streams and springs. Others are forced to drive to far out of town to fetch clean water.
The ministry of water and the water utilities corporation, Camwater, says a drop in the water level at major catchments has caused the problem. But it’s also clear that over the years, new infrastructure was not built to match the city’s rapidly growing population. The unplanned expansion of the sprawling city has also left entire neighborhood unconnected to the city’s water network.
Etoug-Ebe is one of hardest-hit parts of the city, a neighborhood of mostly petit-traders located many kilometers southeast of the palace.
Blaise Abong moved there many months ago. Along with his neighbors the student-diplomat has devised ways to cope after three straight weeks with no water.
“About eight apartments on the bloc depend on a well,” says Abong. “You have to get up, line up at the well in the morning to be able to get some water for the day.
City runs dry, bottled mineral water business booms
“For drinking water, you have to buy mineral water because you cannot bet on the condition of the well,” Abong cautions.
Stories like this are repeated across the city. The mineral water business in booming. In the streets, small traders hawk water in bottles and plastic bags.
The main bottled water companies have introduced larger containers to meet growing demand for quantity as well as quality. A few years ago, Cameroon had only two major bottled water company. Today, they are uncountable.
Abong says his daily life and finances have been affected.
“You don’t have enough water to clean and most of the things lie there dirty,” Abong says. “Because you have to take out extra money from your pocket to buy water while paying bills… you are spending more on water.”
At Carrefour du Palais, city dwellers congregate daily with large plastic containers, bottles and buckets. Some have to wait for two to three hours for take a turn at the spigot.
Water enough for only half of the capital
Yaounde presently needs more than 300,000 cubic tons of water daily, but can only get about half of that. Last year, authorities planned to increase supply to 200,000 metric tons by December 2013, but water scarcity has only become worse.
At the moment, the only hope is a plan to increase water supply to 500,000 metric tons in 2018 by tapping into the Sanaga, one of Cameroon’s largest rivers that flows north of the city.
In spite of Cameroon’s abundant fresh-water resources, water scarcity is a major problem not only in Yaounde but across the country. According to estimates by the government and international organizations like the World Bank, only about 30 to 40 percent of the population has access to potable water.
As the problem persist in the capital, public anger begins to rise. Abong says his anger stems from the fact that he is still paying for tap water that he does not consume.
“My bills come every month,” says Abong. “Sometimes they are maintenance fees. But often you also have to pay bills that are not reduced. You don’t have potable water, yet the bill come and you have to pay; and they come every month.”
As the dry season settles in, city dwellers are bracing themselves for worse conditions. And there has so far been nothing but more bad news. In mid-January 2014, authorities said a new treatment plant expected to bring in an additional 50,000 metric tons was being delayed.