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One of the main conditions for providing potable water services is that the service provider must be able to guarantee that the water is safe for consumption. But what happens when you live in an area where such services are not within reach? Can you be sure that the water that is available is safe for human use?

This blog sets out the water quality challenges faced in Burkina Faso's rural areas, and is the first in a series of three that shares the findings of a recent study, carried out by IRC Burkina Faso in April and May 2014,as part of the USAID/ WA-WASH programme.

It is very reassuring to know that a guarantee exists that the water you are using is safe and of good quality. Water service providers are responsible for ensuring that these guarantees are met, and in Burkina Faso, that is the National Water and Sanitation Utility (ONEA). As ONEA clarifies on its website, the water it delivers must meet the strict health standards that are set by the state and which in turn comply with the World Health Organization's recommendations. This entails a strict check of the quality of water delivered, which runs from source to tap, and which consists of daily internal checks as well as periodical checks carried out by the Ministry of Health's National Laboratory for Public Health. And this, in turn, results in clear accountability, meaning that users shouldn't need to question the quality of the water before consumption as this is the service provider's job. The same holds true for certain rural communities, where those who are connected to small-piped water networks can rely on similar guarantees. However, in the greater part of Burkina Faso's rural areas, these quality checks do not exist, meaning that a majority of people depend on hand pumps and open sources which may be providing water of questionable quality.

As things stand today, there are very few or even no services in rural areas which have the capacity or the technology to determine whether local water sources are of a safe and acceptable quality. Ultimately, what this means is that in most cases, it's fully up to the individual to find water and to determine whether this water is suitable for consumption or not. Although sometimes physical attributes, such as colour and smell, can warn us against drinking dubious water, all too often contamination can disguise itself well, making it practically impossible to detect without using the appropriate technology. This can include contamination by naturally occurring chemicals, as well as by bacteriological pollutants. Defecating in the open, for example, is known to lead to the faecal contamination of water sources, and although this is not easily visually detected, it poses a true health hazard for those who consume this water.

The limited existence of water services and its accountability regarding the quality of water, in combination with a lack of appropriate technology for testing local water, contribute to the persistent water and sanitation crisis in Burkina Faso's rural areas. This leads to a situation where individuals are forced to sort out their own household water provision. This could cause issues around accessibility, time constraints, and lack of knowledge on the risks of consuming non-potable water. In some cases, lack of data on the quality of local water sources has resulted in hand pumps being abandoned without actual proof that the water is of bad quality, which puts a greater strain on the already limited water sources. And in even more serious cases, certain water sources continue to be used whilst that water is highly contaminated and poses a health hazard to its consumers.

The lack of water services in rural areas goes hand in hand with a lack of knowledge on the quality of water that is being consumed by Burkina Faso's rural inhabitants. Insufficient information is currently available on the status and developments in the quality of water sources in Burkina Faso, as well as the sources of contamination. This is bound to have detrimental effects on the population's health and well-being. Through this USAID / WA-WASH funded research, IRC has committed itself to assessing the quality of water that is being consumed in the country's Sahel region.
A subsequent blog will expose the results of the tests that took place at the water sources, followed by another blog which will reveal how the hygienic handling of water along the line between source and consumption is another essential factor for safeguarding the quality of water consumed at the household level.

The full report on water quality will be made available on the IRC website following the third blog.

Disclaimer

At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.