The theme of the 14th annual World Day for Water is water scarcity, a problem that hinders development in many poor countries. In Mali, a near-desert nation where almost 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, retrieving water is a daily struggle that can take hours. Naomi Schwarz has this story from the VOA West Africa Bureau in Dakar, with additional reporting from Julie Vandal in Mali's Mopti region.

In a rural village near Mali's border with Burkina Faso, 10-year old Amadou Barry sits astride a camel, waiting his turn to pull water from the village well.

Nearby, many women are also waiting.

"A woman can wait as long as five hours and still not have access to water," says Fayiri Togola, a technical adviser with the U.N. children's agency. He says men retrieve water for their livestock, but women collect the water for all household needs.

Water in Mali is always scarce. Rainfall is unpredictable, and usually only comes in the wet season between June and October. The rest of the year, Malians must rely on underground sources of water, called the water table. And that also presents problems, says Mattias Diassana, head of the medical center in a village 30 kilometers away.

"The water table is very deep, he says, making it difficult and expensive to construct wells deep enough," says Diassana.

The well where 10-year-old Amadou and many women are waiting is deep enough. More than 60 meters, guesses UNICEF's Togola. But he says, pulling up a bucket from such a depth is exhausting work.

Those who do not have animals, he says, are pulling this very long cord by hand. Those with animals use them.

Amadou, for instance, will tie a cord to his camel and let it do the heavy lifting.

The water gets used for all manner of household tasks, from laundry to cooking dinner. But it is not very clean, says Togola, and villagers suffer from many water-related sicknesses, including typhoid and diarrhea.

Togola says they are working with schools to teach children, and by extension their families, to make better use of the available water.

"We have to give them techniques for purifying water," he says.

This idea is not new, he says. But they have improved it by also making more private wells, such as the ones at the health center and the school, available to the general public.

"We think children, as well as their educators, are a good way to impact the behavior of a community," says Togola.

But Ibrahima Barry, father of young Amadou, says what the village really needs is a tap with running water.