Guinea-Bissau: struggling to survive on Jobel island

15-04-2009 Feature

The inhabitants of Jobel are fighting a daily battle against the elements. There is no drinking water and the island is being assailed by the ocean. But from now on, they can count on ICRC support. The organization is constructing rainwater tanks and aims to help improve the fishing yield.

  ©ICRC/N. Blouin/v-p-gw-e-00088    
  15 kilometres of dykes protect the island from the tides.    
  © ICRC/N. Blouin/v-p-gw-e-00087    
  Of all the tasks performed by the women, collecting drinking water takes the most time. Those with small children have no choice but to take them with them.    
  © ICRC/N. Blouin/v-p-gw-e-00084    
  The construction of 12 water tanks will considerably increase the rainwater storage capacity, making the islanders more self-sufficient.   
  © ICRC/N. Blouin/v-p-gw-e-00070    
  The islanders’ courage is one of their few resources.    

Jobel is a small 6 km2 island washed by the Atlantic in the far south-west of São Domingos, one of the poorest regions of Guinea-Bissau. In this isolated spot, the inhabitants have no electricity, no sanitation, and – most seriously of all – no drinking water. The island’s only resources are a few rice fields, fish, and the extraordinary courage of its inhabitants.

The biggest problem is that the island is situated below sea level. This small community of 773 inhabitants is fighting an ongoing battle against the onslaught of the tides. To protect their rice fields and create new arable land, they have built kilometres of clay dykes around the entire island.

These dykes are accompanied by a system of self-regulating floodgates. Made from hollowed-out palm trees, they incorporate valves that allow the rainwater to drain away while preventing seawater from seeping in. Everything is made from wood and rope – there is not a nail in sight.

The dykes must be constantly maintained, as they are damaged by crabs over time. Each spring tide poses a risk. When a dyke gives way, whole sections of the island are flooded. The houses, all on stilts, are suddenly isolated. Dykes and dugout canoes become the only way of getting around.

It takes almost a week to repair a breach. The islanders’ only tools are their machetes and their aching arms. It then takes three to four years – if no other dykes give way in the meantime – to desalinate the land and prepare it for cultivating crops again.

 No drinking water  

For the community, the complete absence of drinking water on the island represents the other major challenge. During the rainy season, from June to October, they manage to collect rainwater. But their storage capacity is limited and the dry season is very long.

An exhausting weekly grind then begins for the women of Jobel. “We have no choice but to go out in the dugout canoes to look for water on dry land,” explained Anna Djicélé, a representative of the island’s women. “That takes us the whole day, when we don’t have to spend the night there as well because of bad weather. Sometimes the canoes capsize, and we end up losing all the water. Those of us with young children have to take them along. Even pregnant women have to go.”

The island’s women have a long list of daily chores to carry out: housework, educating their children, collecting oysters and wood, shrimp fishing, and working in the rice fields. They even help maintain the 15 kilometres of dykes surrounding the island. “But collecting water is what takes up most of our time,” said Fatou Diatta.

Alerted to the community’s difficult living conditions, in May 2008 the ICRC undertook to support them from neighbouring Senegal. Rice, oil and seeds were distributed to the inhabitants to compensate for the poor harvests of 2007, following very low rainfall.

They have also received fishing equipment and very soon will have a large motor-driven dugout canoe. This should increase the yields from fishing and facilitate the transportation of fish to the São Domingos market. Inhabitants will also be able to evacuate the sick more quickly to the nearest hospital on the mainland. 

 An ambitious project  

But the most ambitious project is the construction of 12 water tanks, each with a 10 m3 capacity. These will considerably increase the rainwater storag e capacity and make the islanders more self-sufficient.

“The water tanks were planned and constructed with the help of the community,” explained Martin Gauthier, ICRC delegate responsible for the programme. “The residents provided the sand and the means of transport for the materials, which included almost 12 tonnes of cement. The biggest challenge was logistical. Everything, except for the sand and the clay, had to be transported to the island and then taken to the different sites by dugout canoe.”

Management of each water tank will be entrusted to a committee made up of one man and one woman. “This will ensure a fair distribution of water among the 4 to 11 families, around 60 people, who will be sharing a water tank,” continued Mr Gauthier.

“These tanks are going to change our daily lives,” said an overjoyed Bassirou, who is the elected leader of the community. His wife, Abalo Niassi, noted with satisfaction that it was “a huge step forward for the women of Jobel,” as the tanks were going to lessen their burden.

The people of Jobel wait with bated breath for the end of May and for the rains to begin. But new challenges already lie ahead. Discouraged by the poor living conditions, an increasing number of young people are leaving the island, and there is a real possibility of depopulation. And the rising water level, a consequence of global warming, is emerging as a major problem – one which may, in the long term, threaten the community’s survival.