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Published on: 10/02/2020

Written by: Marc Broere and Ayaan Abukar - for the Dutch development magazine ViceVersa

The Watershed partnership uses a whole range of activities to solve the root causes. "You cannot stop migration or violence unless you also tackle the water problem."

Mali is a country with a strong oral tradition; with griots who tell their stories, with many musicians who have conquered the international music world. Mali is in fact the birthplace of the blues.

A lot of songs and stories are about water, says Seriba Konare of Wetlands International at his office in the capital Bamako. According to him, that is not surprising in a Sahel country where water is a necessity. "We have a music style called badjourou. Many songs are about water and in the Touareg language there is a well-known song called Aman Iman: "water is life".

"Many traditional stories," he continues, "are about the Niger River, also known as Ba Djoliba in our local Bambara language, which means" blood. " The river got that nickname because the water that flows through it is so important that you can compare it to blood in the human body."

The Watershed - empowering citizens strategic partnership is managed from the Wetlands office. It is intended to address a number of root causes of water issues: in particular water quality and waste management and access to water and sanitation services for all Malians. It wants to do this by strengthening NGOs and making them aware of the rights that already exist on the basis of laws and policies and by lobbying national and local politicians.

Scarce water sources

The work has not become easier in recent years. "Water problems are becoming increasingly complicated," says Konare. "When I was little, we could still drink water from the Niger River. If you do that now, you will have stomach problems within an hour.

"This has reduced the access for poor people to drinking water. The population of Bamako alone has grown from one and a half to five million in the last twenty years. They throw an enormous amount of waste in the river, which causes pollution."

Afou Chantal Bengaly (photo by ViceVersa)

His colleague Afou Chantal Bengaly, the programme coordinator of Watershed, nods. She lists a number of major issues that have an impact on water problems: "Mali has to deal with climate change, population growth and with a crisis in the north. Due to the instability and attacks by jihadists there, more and more Malians are withdrawing to the centre of the country, resulting in increasing aggressiveness around scarce water resources.

"In the past, the system was balanced, with farmers who needed grass to let their cattle graze and farmers who had to spray their fields and were dependent on the rain. Due to climate change there is no good grass anymore and the rains sometimes stay away for a long time.

"That leads to increasing pressure on scarce resources and the urge to survive among the different groups. For a solution, you need politics and good policy which look at all these problems together. But unfortunately that is not the case."

Public goods

With the help of a PowerPoint presentation, they talk about the Watershed programme. The typical jargon that is only used within development cooperation flows abundantly, with "capacity building" as the winner as it is comes up in every other sentence.

In order to achieve its goals, Watershed wants to improve governance in the sector. To this end, it cooperates with local NGOs, such as civil society organisations in the field of water and sanitation in Mali, and with a network of journalists specialising in water issues.

And as if the topic is not complex enough, there is also a political crisis. "There is insecurity in the country," Bengaly explains, "and that has a negative impact on the economy and it is weakening institutions, including those for water and sanitation. The public funds earmarked for this are declining, the infrastructure is deteriorating, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement projects due to the insecurity."

If something has become clear, then it is that it is not the paperwork: that seems fine in Mali. It is about the gap between theory and practice. There are laws and regulations about ensuring water quality, but they are hardly known by NGOs, citizens and sometimes not even by parliamentarians. There are laws for appropriate waste management, but they are not enforced.

Budget commitments have also been made for water quality management and adequate waste management, but it is not clear to anyone whether this is actually being implemented. The subject of water is divided among several ministries, which does not make for coherent policy. And so Bengaly and Konare can go on and on.

The numbers speak for themselves

Their arguments are confirmed by Boureima Tabalaba, the coordinator of the national coalition of NGOs in this sector in Mali. "The lack of accountability is the biggest problem," he says. "Our constitution contains provisions that environmental protection and access to water and sanitation are fundamental rights. In speeches, the government always emphasises that these are two absolute priorities, but to check if that is really the case, you have to look at the numbers."

He says: "The latest figures show that 68 percent of Malians have access to drinking water and only 32 percent to good sanitation. Another reason why I doubt our government's commitment is that only 2.6 percent of the government budget is reserved for it; far too little to deal with the problems properly.

"The national policy plan also states that there must be access to water in every village with more than four hundred inhabitants. We know that there are more than a thousand villages in Mali without water, so you know that something is wrong."

The Watershed partnership works in three areas: in and around Bamako, in the Mopti region and in the region around Segou. Bengaly explains that they focus mainly on capacity building of NGOs, the government and politicians, and the media, both locally and nationally.

She lists a wide range of activities to achieve the goals: from 'producing evidence' in the form of studies, analyses, policy notes and video documentaries to lobbying and advocacy through dialogue meetings, personal meetings with parliamentarians, field visits with political delegations, multi-stakeholder forums, newspaper articles, radio broadcasts and visibility on national television. "We are able to speak to every minister or parliamentarian in person," she says without pride.

Concretely, the partnership has managed a number of things in recent years, says Konare. The most important is the protection of the Niger River. "Many companies and people in and around Bamako used machines to search for gold in it, which caused a lot of pollution and that had become a serious problem. Because of the lobby from our programme, the government has now banned it."

But more importantly, Watershed is a serious discussion partner in the new water and sanitation policy that is currently being developed, Bengaly adds. "It's the first revision since 2006. Our government has hired two World Bank consultants for it. Watershed has been involved in the new plans from the design phase and the consultants ask us for input.

"We have been able to raise important points for us about the relationship between human rights and water, the importance of women's participation and the importance of properly informing citizens about the conservation of water.

"It is necessary that national water and sanitation policies contain all these elements. We can give our input on the draft proposals and meanwhile lobby the responsible ministries to get these issues in the final proposal."

The right information

A major and also remarkable role in the partnership is reserved for journalism. One of the national partners is the Réseau des Journalistes pour l'Eau Potable et Assainissement (RJEPA), a network of journalists who deal extensively with the theme of water and sanitation.

Chairman Youba Konaté says that the organisation has been around for thirteen years and has 54 affiliated journalists. "These are the most important social problems in Mali," he says, "and that is why there is a lot of interest in publishing about the topic."

He says that the media in Mali are also interested in the decline in publications, but that the problem lies mainly in access to information. "Especially when it comes to government organisations; they do not like to provide the correct information. But because our network works together and is often working on productions as a team, it is usually possible to get the information out, eventually."

He sees Watershed as a good partner in crime. "The partnership has achieved a number of things that are closely aligned with our objectives. For example, Watershed played a role in strengthening state responsibility for water and sanitation.

"It has also done a lot to organise civil society in Mali around these issues and has really put the quality of drinking water on the agenda as a theme. Previously it was only about access to water, but not about quality and how you monitor that quality."

Konaté believes that as a media partner he can provide extra impact within the collaboration. "It is very difficult to make people change their habits. They do something because they have always done something that way and don't know anything else, such as dumping garbage on the street or in the river. The media can help change that; simply by naming alternatives and providing the right information."

Rainwater collection

Afou Chantal Bengaly agrees: "Youba says something that is very true, citizens do not have easy access to the right information. They don't get it from the government anyway - and that's not how they change their behaviour. Programmes such as Watershed can help with this.

"We focus on NGOs and citizens who are already involved and interested, but our media partner can open it up to a wider public. We don't have the means to go everywhere, door to door, and talk to people. A media platform can serve them with articles, radio shows and television programmes."

The publications have a wider reach, Bengaly emphasises. "Especially the online documents, which are translated into different local languages. Radio programmes can also lead to behavioural change. Last year, for example, barrels were made available to collect rainwater. Many citizens did not know how to use the barrel and used them for waste disposal. Thanks to the journalists’ efforts, the public now know how to use the barrels correctly."

But the reach is also effective at a higher level. "The RJEPA journalists are able to get subjects that we find important on national television. A team from RJEPA guided us last year, when we were out with a group of politicians from the national parliament, to Mopti. The report has been broadcast on national television - not only in French, but also in local languages. That is where the media can make a difference."

According to Bengaly, collaboration with the media is not unique to Mali. "During the annual meeting of all Watershed partners, I heard a nice story from Uganda, where they are also working with a network of journalists. There, citizens could pass on complaints about poor water and sanitation services to a radio station.

"That station kept statistics about the complaints. If several complaints were received about a certain municipality, the reporter went there to confront the officials concerned. The list of complaints was also posted on the door of the town hall. " Laughing: " We're going to see if we can do this in Mali."

A fragile foundation

The question of priority remains. In the current political context of Mali, is lobbying for better water and sanitation facilities not a kind of luxury?

Seriba Konare of Wetlands International shakes his head. "Peace is very important," he says, "but it is through water that you can achieve peace in the long term. In the end it comes down to who controls the water and therefore has access to it. "

His colleague Bengaly nods. "You have to work on both safety and water. Lobby and advocacy also remain necessary in fragile states such as Mali. Look, we don't know when the crisis will end, it can take years. We do not want the water situation in our country to stagnate because people and organisations do not have the correct information and do not know their rights.

"I think the small contribution also helps end the crisis in the long run. The state is fragile and the institutions in our country are fragile, but citizens have a right to information and to capacity building in order to better organise themselves. In this way they also help the government to take the right decisions."

International donors operating in the region are increasingly focusing on root causes of migration and on combating jihadism, through employment programmes and vocational education. Traditional development programmes, such as for water, seem to have lost importance.

According to Konare and Bengaly that would be a wrong way of thinking. "Water shortage is also a root cause of migration and violence," says Konare. "If your animals die due to lack of water, you have two choices: go to Europe or join a terrorist group. You cannot stop migration or tackle violence in any way unless you also address the water problem."

Bengaly nods: "Climate change forces people to survive. Certainly, in the north of Mali, where the problems are already serious, it has a major negative impact. People no longer have a choice and are looking for ways to survive.

"The government's task is to safeguard natural resources, such as water. That’s the only way to stop migration. The task of our programme is to get that message across to both civil society organisations and politicians."


Translation of this article was provided by Tettje van Daalen, IRC


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