shower 640

For the last couple of weeks, during the hot season, there have been intermittent water outages at my house, as well as much less common electricity outages. And even when the water is on, pressure is usually very low, as you can see in the trickle of water coming from my shower. The big black bucket next to the shower is the way one actually washes oneself: you wet yourself with a few cereal bowls full of water, soap up, scrub, shave, and then use a few more bowls full to rinse off. With practice, a big bucket like that can serve for two or even three washings. A good thing, too, since from outages of a couple of hours a day back in March we are now up to 12 hours or more without water. And in this heat, it sure feels pleasant and is easier on the noses of all the people around you if you wash four or five times a day.

Yesterday, the Burkina government water authority, ONEA, came out with an official schedule for water delivery. In our neighborhood, in principle, the water will be on from 8:00 a.m to 8:00 p.m. You’d think it would be more efficient the other way around, given that this is principally a residential neighborhood, but that’s not what ONEA decided. In fact, water deliveries during the day for a residential neighborhood are not much of a hardship since there’s generally at least somebody at home in the big African family to fill water tanks and buckets during the day. At my house it is a little less easy since the guardian goes off duty at 6:00 a.m. and I often am out of the house by 7:30. I say “in principle” the water is on at 8:00 a.m. because as a matter of fact, at 8:30 this morning, there was still no water pressure, though now upon my return from Ascension Day mass and lunch with a priest friend of mine, there is a little trickle of water.

The causes of both water and electricity outages are the same: growing population, inconsistent rainfall, and poor management of water resources. Before this country was the “land of upright men” (that’s what Burkina Faso means), it was “Upper Volta”. It is, in fact, the upper end of the watershed of the Volta River, one of Africa’s great rivers, that flows into the sea in Ghana. Back in the 1960’s the Pan-Africanist President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah built a huge dam on the lower Volta at Akossombo. This created Lake Volta, the largest lake in West Africa and the largest man-made lake in the world. It was intended to provide the electric power not only for Ghana’s industrialization and development into a first-world nation but also electric power to export to the neighboring countries if they were nice to Nkrumah and/or paid in hard currency. Ghana still sells Burkina much of its electricity, though Burkina also build a number of hydropower projects in the 70s and 80s. All of these lakes, including Lake Volta, are now filling up with silt and thus becoming less effective for electricity production and for storage of water for human use.

Electricity costs the earth here, almost US$ 0.15 a kilowatt hour, or almost four times what it costs in Portland, Oregon, my home town. As I say, it is out fairly regularly though much less commonly than was the case in Conakry when I lived there 25 years ago. Still, expensive power is one of the real constraints of development here. The government is pioneering a bunch of alternative sources of electricity, including biomass, as I detailed in an earlier blog post. The less they need water to turn turbines in dams, the more water they can use for twenty million or so increasingly thirsty Burkinabè, and for their agricultural needs.

In downtown Ouagadougou and around the outskirts of the town, there are several shallow lakes behind dams that are not used for hydropower production but are reservoirs for the city’s water system. They have the same problem with silting. There are plants growing up out of the middle of at least one reservoir even as I am writing this:

Loumbila lake 1

This photo was actually taken in March, so no doubt it is worse now but in 105 degree heat I’m not riding out to Loumbila Lake anytime soon.

The water system was built in the 1970s and 1980s. The big dam at Loumbila has some revolutionary slogans on it, perhaps dating to the Sankara era (1984-87). At that time, Ouagadougou had a population of under a million. Today the population of the metro area is over 2,000,000. Rapid urbanization is common throughout the developing world. People want to live in the city. There are jobs here, there is education, there is hope for the future at least for some people. Some of those 2,000,000, especially in new (unauthorized) suburban neighborhoods, aren’t getting their water from ONEA but instead rely on wells. Wells are fine for small villages but if there are thousands of people, even a good drilled well won’t be able to accommodate them all or provide them with safe water in any case. When we went out to see Mr. Ilboudo’s “village” of Kossodo, the neighbors were lined up 20 deep to fill water barrels at the well down the street from his house. And he said he and other landowners in the area were pushing for ONEA to open up a pipeline to the neighborhood and put up some public water taps.

People who get their water at public water taps fill 50-gallon oil drums or multiple 10-liter plastic jugs on carts. Presumably, that is water for days and days for a family, or is shared between a number of families (I’m unclear if the guys with the pushcarts are water-sellers or are supplying a large number of users in their families). But if you have water flowing into your house, then you don’t need to sweat to haul it from the public tap, and so you use a lot more. You might have a flush toilet – there’s five liters gone every time somebody in the house needs to go. You let the water run while you do dishes – a moral failing of mine – and use ten or fifteen liters after each meal. You take a shower with the water running instead of a bucket bath: the shower at normal water pressure can fill the bucket in a minute or two, and even fairly abstemious showers take five minutes, so thus you are using three or more times as much water with a shower than with a bucket bath. You water flowers in your garden. The hose is running for at least an hour a day in my house.

Running water and flush toilets are a sign of middle-class status and people should aspire to having them. Sometimes third-world urban water supply can be a little dodgy in terms of germs – I distill all my drinking water – but you are certainly better off from a health point of view drinking Ouaga city water than you would be drinking water from those wells on the periphery of town. A good drilled well in a village is normally safe because it has been sited far enough from latrines that the ground water is clean. In a densely inhabited suburb like Kossodo, on the other hand, there is no place that is far enough from a latrine to ensure that you aren’t drinking a little bit of someone’s leftovers. Water-borne parasitic diseases are among the leading causes of death here, still. About 80% of Ouagalais now have access to city water, which is a remarkably high number by the standards I got used to 30 years ago. There has been significant progress.

But. But that progress means that the reservoirs designed for less than a million relatively light users of tap water now have to deal with two million much more liberal water users. Thus, the weeds growing up out of the lakes in March.

Here’s a Powerpoint I found on urban growth patterns in Ouaga.

Finally, rainfall patterns have changed over the past decades. As a general rule, the dry season lasts from November to June. The rains begin with a few scattered days in April, called the “mango rains”, then increasingly common thunderstorms in May and early June, then consistent heavy daily rains from late June through August or early September, tapering off through October. We’ve been in an intense La Nina-El Nino alternation over the last year, and the weather has been weird here. Last year, the rains didn’t start until July and didn’t end until the end of September. We had rain, as mentioned in this blog, in February. And the “mango rains” were unusually heavy. Now, the pattern of daily thunderstorms has established itself a couple of weeks early (thank God). Too much rain at the wrong time can be as bad as not enough, especially for farmers but also for water supply systems. The reservoirs are starting to fill again, but the system is not totally ready for the rains yet, apparently. They are letting most of the water flood through, clearing the channels of trash and silt that accumulated during the dry season. The little swampy area in the Bangr-Weogo Park where I saw the alligator sign has filled back up again (and the alligators are back out). Pretty soon, the lower bridge will be unusable.

And while I was out, I ran into another sign of urban development in Ouaga:

Mickey D Ouaga 640

Ripping off western trademarks is a common practice in the developing world. I just read an article in the New York Times about “iPhone” leather goods on sale in China. Down the street from the Peace Corps office in Conakry in the early 90s was a “Macdonald’s Restaurant” serving quite good burgers and shawarmas. “Mabarka” restaurant (M’baraka means “thank you” in the local language of Mossi) is part of an old tradition. But the use of the trademark shows sophistication. Welcome to globalization, Ouaga. The world is flattish.


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