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WATER-MOZAMBIQUE: Remote Villages Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Jessie Boylan

MCONDECE, Mozambique, Oct 21 2009 (IPS) - "This is where we get our water from," says a villager on the footpath leading out of Mcondece. Branches and other debris float on the surface of the sluggish, murky brown creek.

The river at Mtwepe. Credit:  Jessie Boylan/IPS

The river at Mtwepe. Credit: Jessie Boylan/IPS

Some baboons are drinking from one end of the pool and a few kids run down to chase them away, then squat by the water's edge, cup their hands and drink noisy mouthfuls.

The road leading to Mcondece, a small community tucked in amongst burnt-back bush and cassava fields in a remote corner of northwest Mozambique, is sandy and a challenge for regular cars in the dry season – impassable in the wet. Everyone travels on foot or by bicycle.

The village has a population of around 400; its original inhabitants moved here many generations in search of fertile land. It is one of several settlements in the region which lacks a borehole or water pump, and therefore has no access to clean and safe drinking water.

"The major problem we have with water is that the whole village is using the same small river that you just saw earlier," says Agnes Kapondela. "The same river is used for bathing, washing plates and for drinking, so the water is not clean."

She is sitting on a pile of mud bricks next to the new school, which is currently under construction. "If kids are thirsty at school they have to run down to the river to drink the same water, which is not very hygienic."

Bad water, bad health

Villagers complain of stomach aches, diarrhoea, vomiting and the flu as a result of drinking the water. The closest clinic is a day's walk away, so they're not sure of the exact diagnosis of their ailments.

The option of boiling water to purify it is not a popular one with villagers.

"People don't like boiling water," says Nema Mswachi, a woman from Mandambuzi, another village in the same area which is lucky enough to have a deep well with a water pump.

"Because of tradition, people are used to drinking water straight from the river. Sometimes people use tablets like Water Guard, or sometimes they'll boil water just for the small babies."

Women do most of the farming, firewood collection, cooking, cleaning and also take care of children in rural communities like this one. Felo Mtela, from Mtepwe village, a four-hour walk north of Mcondece, says not having clean water to drink has an impact on women's ability to work.

"Sometimes I feel my body becomes very weak because I do a lot of work," she said, "and (in addition) when we don't drink good water, it makes it harder to work when we’re sick…"

The water source makes the work difficult even when villagers are healthy. To irrigate their fields, women often dig a shallow well near the river, and transfer water to their farms one bucket at a time.

"We have had no help in getting water pumps yet," said Mtela, "and it would help a lot because we wouldn't have to carry water on our heads so much, we would just pump it to our farms.


Some villagers dig small wells closer to home for drinking water, however, according to Mtela, these wells aren't covered so insects and other contaminants get in.

No outside help

Villagers in the region say they have been asking for assistance for a long time.

WaterAid is an international NGO that works with communities to insall wells, water pumps, and composting latrines. They have a range of basic hand pumps which are cheap enough for communities to afford, and quick and easy to fix.

The NGO claims to have helped 270,000 people gain access to water across Mozambique, and has been working in Niassa Province since 1995.

There are several factors which contribute to water, hygiene and sanitation problems in the province, says Heike Gloeckner, WaterAid's Southern Africa regional programme officer.

"Broadly I would say that the issues we are facing are: water tables are decreasing, population is increasing (in some areas) and topography is making it very hard for our partners to access the aquifer for drilling a borehole," she says.

WaterAid's technical support manager, Erik Harvey, says the sinking water table means communities are forced to rely on outside support to reach deeper more reliable water reserves.

"Most communities have existing survival strategies that can simply be reinforced. Most have basic wells that, with very little effort, can be protected, (lined with bricks, raised above ground level, closed with a lid, used with a single bucket and rope as opposed to many)," he adds.

"In the absence of this, basic filters can be made with layered cloth, or drinking water, particularly for babies, elderly and the ill, can be boiled."

When asked why no one has yet reached villages like Mcondece, Mtepwe and Magachi, Harvey responded, "The process of prioritisation and community selection is normally undertaken by the government with some assistance from WaterAid staff.

"WaterAid's funding is limited," says Harvey, "and we have, where possible, focused on choosing districts that have historically had the lowest coverage levels.

"The key here is to get government to take up our learning, to combine the efforts of all role-players and funds in the sector to reach the unreached villages. WaterAid alone just does not have the resources to reach everywhere."

Alexis Tove, community manager for the Manda Wilderness Community Trust, an NGO which works with 16 communities in this part of Niassa province building schools and clinics, says the reason no one has come to inland villages like Mcondece is simply their inaccessibility.

"NGOs are the same as government," he says. "They work within the accessible areas, If villages are so remote, it's much less likely that they'll be visited. You're unlikely to see government officials or NGOs trekking over mountains to visit villages.


The WaterAid website states that for as little as $1,800 a well can be hand-dug and a rope pump installed, and $2,280 will pay for the training of a water committee and six months of education on hygiene.

"If the money is the main problem with implementing the systems," says Tove, "and if it's relatively inexpensive then we should be able to find funds for it. But we will need the resources and help from those NGOs and from government who have experience in
 this area.

"It seems ridiculous that the solutions seem so simple and easy to implement and yet nothing has been done for those communities who have been drinking dirty water for years," he said.

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