from the field: the value of water in Mali.

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mali nat

Oct. 2011 | Mali
Mali is famous for a number of things: the legendary city of Timbuktu, the extraordinary mud mosque of Djenné, an amazing music scene, among many other things -– but water supply isn’t one of them. Although the Niger River arcs through the southern part of the country, most of the land is covered by the Sahara and water is scarce…

… unless you know where to look.

I got to spend some time last month traveling in Mali around Segou and the capital Bamako learning about the Malian water situation and how some people are working to deal with it.

They’ve learned that 30, 40, 60 meters down, there are aquifers that can provide drinking water to rural towns and fast-growing urban communities. The communities I saw, even in rural areas, are densely settled and are ideal for community distribution systems. This is essentially a small utility that brings a high level of water supply to the community.

mali garden

The new water source also brings income to women -– I’ve seen women-managed communal gardens growing cash crops and women running or working at urban water kiosks. The close proximity of the water saves time for collection, and the cash generation helps women with the planned and unplanned expenses in life.

But what I found most encouraging about the solutions in Mali is the commitment of the communities to making it work: water pumps are powered by fragile solar panels, which provide energy for free, but are vulnerable to kids with rocks.

In other places I visited, the panels would be cracked within the month… not in Mali. The water systems are well protected, and the kids are very well behaved. In other countries, getting people to pay for maintenance of water systems is also a profound challenge… not in Mali. Water committees set appropriate tariffs for water fees and collect the money regularly. When asked, they produce bankbooks on the spot with up-to-date records.

mali solar

The value Malians place on water is palpable –- and they protect it as a resource critical to both their daily lives and their future. Mali is maintaining its water systems, developing skills to manage water supply both nationally and in communities, and monitoring its aquifers to make sure they aren’t depleted too quickly.

This is a context where sustainable solutions are just within reach. And with the right support to the Malian people, we can hope to see water supply become another reason Mali is famous.

– Nat Paynter
Director of Water Programs
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