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Côte d'Ivoire: clean tap water, despite everything

10-06-2008 Feature

Since crisis erupted in 2002, the ICRC has been the only organization able to manage and maintain the water-supply system in northern Côte d’Ivoire which supplies water to over 1.5 million people. Now that peace has been restored, the private operator, SODECI, can take over once again. Iolanda Jaquemet reports on this operational success story, which has largely been the result of cooperation between the ICRC and the company's courageous employees.


© ICRC / Iolanda Jaquemet 
Yéo Kanaga talks to Jacques Maradan. 

“If it hadn’t been for the ICRC, frankly, we wouldn‘t have made it through,” admitted Yéo Kanaga, his voice suddenly drowned out by a deafening roar that shook the building. The accelerator pump at the Kan treatment plant was sending purified water to the water tower, from where it would be distributed around the town.

In other circumstances this system would have failed, and contaminated drinking water would have brought disease to the local population. When the crisis broke out in September 2002, many of the water station's staff fled to the south of the country. " In the Bouaké area, only 14 of the 80 employees stayed behind, " recalled Yéo. He was one of the 14.

Yéo well remembers the day in 2002 when he was stopped by armed men as he was transporting a consignment of chemicals to the water-supply station in Bouaké. They suspected his cargo was poison. " They told me to eat some of the powder to prove that it wasn’t,” he said. If Yéo (now head of the water-treatment plant in Kan, a commercial centre with over 100,000 inhabitants) had actually swallowed any of these powders in their pure form, he would in all probability have died.

For the million and a half people connected to the SODECI network, however, those chemicals have been an uninterrupted source of life. " Even at the height of the crisis, we very rarely went for more than three days without water, " said Yéo proudly.

For the employees, just going to work posed a risk to life and limb. One day, Yéo was shot at while travelling to work on his motorbike. “I never told my family, but I wanted to quit that day. But if I had stopped working, there would have been no more water.”

The roadblocks and the poor security conditions meant that SODECI could no longer send their trucks loaded with chemicals and spare parts for the 115 water stations, both small and large, dotted around the north of the country.

So much was at stake that the ICRC decided to take matters into its own hands. After discussing the situation with the parties to the conflict, its trucks began plying back and forth through the roadblocks to deliver the vital chemicals. " For the Bouaké area alone, 27 tonnes of chemicals are needed every two weeks, " explained Jacques Maradan, an ICRC water and habitat engineer.

Not only that but the ICRC began driving to work the remaining SODECI employees, who were by now being supplemented by workers trained on the job. One of Yéo’s colleagues in Bouaké was given accommodation at the ICRC's sub-delegation for a few months. The organization's engineers worked closely with local technicians, visiting each station at least once a month.

 Rocket launcher or borehole pump?  

Quietly and discreetly the organization temporarily took over from the SODECI and kept the water stations of the north running. “It was the first time in ICRC history that we've substituted for a private operator,” Jacques Maradan pointed out.

Beginning in 2004, this work took on a new dimension. Owing to lack of maintenance and investment, the water stations began to deteriorate, with metering pumps and other equipment breaking down. The ICRC began supplying spare parts.

This led to some interesting events, like the time it had to be patiently explained at a roadblock how a brand new borehole pump for the Bouaké station was a pump and not a rocket launcher.

In the beginning, everyone thought that it was simply a matter of getting around a temporary problem. “We thought we would be doing this for six months, " said Claude-Alain Zappella, head of the ICRC delegation in Côte d’Ivoire. “But each six months was followed by another six months, and now it's 2008. "

What with the Ouagadougou agreement, says Zappella, the crisis is today on its way to being resolved, and from now on it will be up to the usual parties to fulfil their duties. The ICRC's disengagement has been gradual. Every month, since January 2008, the delivery of chemicals has been reduced by one twelfth, and SODECI is responsible for transporting them.

At the end of the year, the private operator will resume full management of the water-supply network in northern Côte d'Ivoire. It is a good sign that things are getting back to normal.