A pioneering solar-powered water distribution system is improving access to potable water in a region of Far North Cameroon beset by drought, water-related illness and an influx of refugees fleeing Boko Haram attacks.

The system, in which water is collected in a large dam built amid the region’s hills and piped to a series of underground community wells, aims to cut the distance women need to walk to collect water and improve access to safe water.

“Scarcity of potable water in this area has been a major problem because of the hilly but excessively dry landscape. That is why government thought it imperative to invest in this water collection and supply (system using) solar energy,” said Emmanuel Nganou Djoumessi, Cameroon’s Ministry of Econony, Planning and Regional Development during a recent visit.

Cameroon’s National Water Company, SNEC, supplies water only to Mokolo, the main town in Diamare division. That means only about 20 percent of people in the division have access to potable drinking water, Nganou said.

The new system, however, now has helped bring clean drinking water within the reach of 80 percent of people in the division, he said.

The project uses a 2,500 cubic meter collecting dam in the hills to store water. Solar power is then used to pump water from the dam and into pipes leading downhill to six neighboring villages including Mindif, said project engineer Jorel Kom.

In the villages, over 40 water storage containers collect the supplied water, which can then be pumped into household containers using a low-maintenance hand pump, he said.

Constructed at a cost of over 788 million CFA ($1.3 million) from the country’s public investment budget, the project is transforming life in a region increasingly struggling with erratic rainfall and drying groundwater supplies, local people say.

Help for women 

Bouma Ibrahim, 60, a farmer in Mindif village, called the project a huge help to women who previously had to walk long distances to find water.

“This water supply project, I believe, is the answer to our prayers to Allah because our women and girls, whose role it is to fetch water, had to travel long distances under the scorching heat of the sun in search of water. This is behind us now,” he said.

Women in the area, who brew and sell a local millet beer called “Bil Bil”, say better access to water has improved their business prospects.

“My business now attracts more customers who no longer doubt the source of water used for production,” said Adjidja Alim, one of the brewers.

The isolated village of Mindif depends on farming and raising animals, and both have been hit by worsening drought, local people said. But the success of the initial water supply project raises the possibility that further projects could be constructed to store water for irrigation purposes, said Essimi Menye, Cameroon’s Minister of Agriculture.

“With this project, many irrigation schemes for both smallholder and large-scale farming are now envisaged. We are ready to support such initiatives to boost agriculture in the Far North,” he said.

Agriculture employs 70 percent of the workforce in Cameroon, and provides 42 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and 30 percent of its export revenue, according to government statistics.

Health experts say an improved supply of portable water in Far North Cameroon could also help reduce a rising series of disease outbreaks in the region over the past three years.

Since 2012, cholera outbreaks have raged regularly in the region, affecting primarily children and their mothers. A 2013 outbreak had a fatality rate of over 7 percent, according to UNICEF, and spread to neighbouring countries including Chad, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Niger.

Many of the affected areas had already been weakened by food shortages and a lack of health care and sanitation facilities.

“Apart from water scarcity and poor sanitation, insecurity with Boko Haram killings has aggravated poverty in the Far North, necessitating combined efforts to bail the population out,” Felicite Tchbindat a UNICEF Cameroon country representative told reporters during a visit to the region late last year.

Pressure on the region’s resources has climbed with the influx of Nigerian refugees fleeing clashes in northeast Nigeria between regional military forces and Boko Haram insurgents.

According to a March report from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, Cameroon’s Far North region now hosts more than 16,000 Nigerian refugees.

Cameroon’s government says that in partnership with development organisations it plans to construct over 1,000 borehole wells to supply water in the Far North region. Each well drilled in the region costs about 8 million CFA ($16,300), according to Parfait Ndeme, an engineer at the Ministry of Water and Energy.

This article is published in collaboration with The Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning Cameroon-based freelance writer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation with an interest in climate change

Image: People collect water at a camp for displaced people. REUTERS/Camille Lepage.