Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-CAMEROON: Water Shortage Worsens

Norbert N. OUENDJI

YAOUNDE, Oct 1 1999 (IPS) - Residents of Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital city, have been without potable water for two months now as problems wrack the city’s water purification and distribution system.

It all began when the pile-line running from the Mbalmayo pumping station, 45 kilometres from Yaounde, went faulty. The 1400- millimetre diametre pipe ruptured at Odza, one of Yaounde’s best- known neighbourhoods.

Officials from the Cameroon National Water Company (SNEC) discovered an error in construction which originated from the time the station was built in the mid-1980s.

An expert from the Ministry of Mines, Water and Energy (MINMEE), says “the pipe was not properly reinforced, prompting it to rupture”.

Other experts blame the problem on the channeling system in the treated water holding area at the Akomnyada station on the Nyong River at Mbalmayo, where about 200 cubic metres of water are lost each hour.

Daily production at the Mbalmayo pumping station has dropped by three quarters. While normal production is 100,000 cubic metres daily, its output now is 25,000 cubic metres. Total normal consumption for Yaounde is estimated 60,000 cubic metres of water per day for a population of more than 1.5 million people.

The alternate water sources consumers have been forced to use are sometimes of questionable quality.

“We have no choice. What can we do?”, says a housewife, desperately waiting for her turn on a long queue at a well in Biyem Assi, a suburb of Yaounde.

She says she fetches water every morning and evening in her two 100-litre casks. “I try to arrange it so that my family has enough for at least one week”, she says.

Others rely on the rainwater which they capture for use in the home. Health authorities say they fear an outbreak of diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and diarrhea will hit the city.

“Parents have to remain vigilant. If they don’t take necessary hygienic precautions, they’ll expose themselves and their children to illnesses caused by dirty water”, warns a nurse in a private clinic in Yaounde.

The inhabitants of Yaounde have been urged to disinfect their water using bleach or to boil or filter their water before drinking. Since last week, local newspapers have been publishing practical advice on dealing with such problems to avoid illness.

“The situation is very worrisome. If nothing is done soon, you have to worry that there could be humanitarian crisis in our health facilities’, says a nurse at Yaounde’s central hospital. She says for the normal delivery of a baby without complications, at least 20 litres of water are required.

“From the time this problem began, each patient has been required to bring her own water when we didn’t have enough rainwater on hand”, she says.

Only the rich can afford bottled water, whose cost has skyrocketed from 350 CFA francs to 500 francs a bottle in most shops.

One US Dollar is equal to 562 CFA francs.

Foreign envoys in Yaounde have voiced their indignation at the inconvenience and the health risk posed by the lack of clean drinking water.

The German Ambassador to Cameroon, for example, has sent an official letter to the Cameroonian Minister for Foreign Affairs on the gravity of the situation.

On Sep 2, Robert Lacey, the resident representative of the World Bank in Cameroon, contacted the SNEC’s director general, Obouh Fegue, to express his dismay over the water problem.

Most diplomatic missions have warned their citizens against traveling to Cameroon until the situation is corrected.

Given the threat of dwindling tourist dollars as reported by local newspapers, officials in Yaounde have launched a water- rationing plan, which turned out to be a flop.

They also recommended that the two water treatment stations located in Yaounde be rehabilitated. The cost of the refurbishment is estimated to run at more than three billion CFA francs.

A joint effort, involving the Ministers of Economy and Finance, Public Investment, and National and Regional Development, is being mooted to finance the scheme.

Repair work on the broken pipe work at Odza has begun. But technicians from the SNEC cannot say when the work will be completed.

Cameroon’s head of state, Paul Biya, has given orders that every possible measure be taken to restore order to Yaounde, and that clean running water return to the city no later than October.

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