Every day, Paulina Abena and her two grown-up daughters criss-cross the neighbourhoods of Yaounde carrying 40-litre (11 US gallon) containers. They are searching for drinking water, an increasingly scarce commodity in Cameroon’s capital since the government introduced rationing in response to a prolonged drought and inadequate water infrastructure.
“For over five months, the taps in my house have run dry,” says Abena. The 46-year-old brews a local drink, “kwatcha”, from fermented maize to sell at a nearby market.
“Without water this business cannot function, so we have to trek sometimes as far as 10 km (6 miles) in search of drinking water,” she adds.
The sight of women and children walking long distances to find drinking water has become a familiar one in Yaounde and in many African cities, a situation environmental experts blame on increasingly severe dry seasons, surging urban populations and lack of investment in water infrastructure.
“When dry periods go longer than usual, sources of water dry up, as we have seen with the diminishing water volume of the Nyong River in Yaounde and Lake Chad, and this leads to a water supply shortage,” said Zachee Nzohngadembou, executive director of the Centre for the Environment and Rural Transformation, a nongovernmental organisation in Limbe.
The tortuous daily trek of Abena and her daughters, and many others like them, is the result of temporary rationing measures introduced by the government, with each neighbourhood taking its turn to receive water once a week.
Announcing the measure over state radio and television in February, the government delegate to the Yaounde city council, Gilbert Tsimi Evouna, noted that the city’s more than 3 million inhabitants require a daily water supply of over 300,000 cubic metres (about 80 million gallons).
Statistics from the state water company, Camerounaise Des Eaux, show that Yaounde has a supply gap of about 200,000 cubic metres a day. The main source, Nkomyanda water treatment station, supplies 100,000 cubic metres a day, while the Akumnyada treatment centre produces just 100 cubic metres.
Only about 30 percent of Cameroon’s 20 million inhabitants have access to piped drinking water, according to government statistics.
Many households resort to water from boreholes, which must be treated before drinking.
“The risk of malaria, fever and water-borne infections is high,” said Casimir Youmbi, emergency response manager for the Cameroon office of Plan, an international children’s charity. “Living conditions are poor (and) unsanitary, and the over-crowded population makes matters even worse,” he added.