Casamance: Working with local communities to provide water

05-06-2013 Interview

People in south-western Senegal are suffering the combined effects of a long dry season and an armed conflict. Obtaining water is a daily challenge for these communities, which rely on agriculture to survive.

Infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. There are landmines. It is difficult or impossible for displaced people to return, or to obtain basic services. Much of the water in the area is brackish, and hygiene is poor. ICRC water and habitat engineer Luc Soenen explains the challenges facing communities in Casamance and across the border in Guinea-Bissau. The ICRC has already been able to improve hygiene and access to drinking water for 40,000 people in the area.

What is the water and hygiene situation in Casamance?

Generally speaking, people do have water. But there is room for improvement, especially as regards drinking water. And that's especially true in rural areas affected by the conflict. Some water points and homes have been abandoned for over a year. They need to be repaired or rebuilt when their owners return.

Needs are even more pressing the other side of the border in the north of Guinea-Bissau. Many people from Senegal fled across the border to get away from the fighting. But Guinea-Bissau was already poor, hygiene was lacking in many cases and cholera is widespread.

The ICRC is one of the few humanitarian agencies operating in conflict zones. What are we doing about the situation?

First off, we're building and repairing water points. With the assistance of our agronomists, we're helping people counteract salinity by setting up water storage facilities for irrigation, especially for growing rice. We're also supplying water to market gardeners. All of this is helping boost agricultural production, which in turn is enhancing food and economic security.

And we're providing money and expertise for the building or rebuilding of houses. Finally, we're installing family latrines where the hygiene situation is most critical, particularly in the north of Guinea-Bissau. All of these projects correspond to the needs and wishes of local people. As a result, they are both effective and welcome. Some 20,000 people on each side of the border are benefiting from these activities; that's a total of 40,000 people.

You are also working in schools. Why?

We're teaching schoolchildren the basic rules of hygiene, such as washing your hands. We also show them how to treat water and look after water points. Until recently, we've been working in rural areas of Casamance. Now, we're focusing on Guinea-Bissau and on a particularly poor area of Ziguinchor in Casamance.

What difficulties does the ICRC face in its daily work?

The main difficulties are linked to security and access to the areas where the people live who need our help. Landmines are making our movements especially dangerous in some parts of Casamance. For some months now, we haven't been able to enter certain areas, as we don't have any agreements with the relevant branches of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance. In those areas, we work closely with the National Red Cross Society. They are able to operate on the ground, and they're helping us assess the needs there.

How are you involving local communities in the management of these projects?

It is essential that local communities be able to manage the installations themselves. We're working with the regional water board to support the creation and training of technicians and water point management committees.

We noticed that people were unable to maintain some over-ambitious installations, because they lacked the funds, the know-how or quite simply the time. So most of our projects take account not only of the villagers' needs, but also of their capabilities. We often opt for manual pumps, because they have lower operating costs.

What is the role of the Senegalese Red Cross Society?

Its network of volunteers makes the Senegalese Red Cross Society our natural partner, especially when it comes to raising awareness and promoting hygiene and sanitation. We're doing everything we can to make sure these volunteers are able to take over from us. We also work with the regional authorities on technical matters. Here again, the aim is for them to be able to work without the ICRC.

Does the ICRC have other water and habitat activities in Senegal?

We've been working in certain places of detention, and we're planning to launch small-scale projects to raise hygiene awareness in prisons. Working in conjunction with our health colleagues, we've built and repaired a number of sanitary installations in prisons.


Luc Soenen, ICRC 

Luc Soenen

Women work in their market garden. 

Biti-Biti, Casamance.
Women work in their market garden. The ICRC is providing water for market gardens. This boosts food production and improves the economic situation of the villagers.
© ICRC / D. Mrazikova

Women fetch water from a pump installed by the ICRC. 

Biti-Biti, Casamance.
Women fetch water from a pump installed by the ICRC. Some pumps in rural areas affected by the conflict have been abandoned for over a year, and are in need of repair.
© ICRC / D. Mrazikova

Children drink at a pump installed by the ICRC. 

Biti-Biti, Casamance.
Children drink at a pump installed by the ICRC. The ICRC also explains to children how to treat water and how to protect water points.
© ICRC / D. Mrazikova

Children drink at a pump installed by the ICRC. 

Biti-Biti, Casamance.
Children drink at a pump installed by the ICRC. The ICRC often installs manual pumps rather than electric ones, as the running costs are lower.
© ICRC / D. Mrazikova