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The crucial resource--water, part 3

By David K. Willis / September 12, 1985



Khartoum, Sudan

Stuck up on a grimy wall inside the offices of the United Nations Children's Fund here is a winsome poster showing a small girl wearing a large turban. Above her is a question: ``What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?''

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The answer, below her, is simple:

``Alive!''

To stay alive in Africa today means having access to water. People will stay in a village with water but almost no food. They will leave a village with some food but no water.

``Without water it's impossible to have development,'' says UNICEF director James Sarr in N'Djamena, Chad.

To most Westerners, the African famine has been caused by lack of water -- drought. Actual causes are more deeply rooted: decades of mismanagement by African and Western governments, too much priority given to cash crops for export, civil wars, corruption, apathy, and a failure to respond to the gradual breaking down of the traditional ``slash and burn'' method of cultivation under pressure of record rates of population growth. But adequate, clean, drinkable water is vital. A new blueprint for finding, conserving, and efficiently using African water is urgently needed.

Ideas for such a blueprint come from Jamie Wickens, an American who heads the UN World Food Program in N'Djamena, and Samir Basta, an Egyptian who is UNICEF director in Sudan. On an upper floor of a UN building in N'Djamena, Mr. Wickens worries that rain-fed farming can no longer sustain people across the seven mainland countries of the Sahel.

``Drought cycles are coming more frequently now,'' he says. ``Every year Chadians in the north plant millet, sorghum, and maize [corn] -- and nothing grows.'' His solution: Intensify a process already begun in Niger and Mali to make maximum use of existing ground-level water reservoirs in dry seasons. He ticks off the methods:

Chad, Niger, and Mali all have water in their wadis, or small oasis valleys. Chad's Kanem region has 500 to 600 wadis, but only 150 are being used to supply mini-irrigation networks. More unused wadis lie in the Biltine and Lake Fittri areas.

The World Food Program is trying to persuade more farmers to develop wadi water by offering to pay food to whoever digs mini-canals to lead the water away.

``I've seen wheat growing in wadis in February [the dry season] three feet high,'' Wickens says. ``I've seen citrus fruits and grapes. . . .'' Using resources while they're available

Wickens also says many more garden plots for vegetables should be started on empty riverbeds, where water is still available below the surface. I saw such plots in the bed of the Chari River in N'Djamena.

``While the drought continues, we have to use water reserves while they're available,'' he says. ``Lake Chad is drying up. The Chari and Logone Rivers are shrinking.

``Wadi farming and the rest is simple technology, manual labor. All we need are food-aid supplies to pay workers, and seeds. . . .''

Drilling also goes ahead in Chad. UNICEF's James Sarr has just signed a $1 million contract with a French company for 100 new boreholes and is trying to convince the United States Agency for International Development that a $1.8 million contract for more drilling is cost-effective.

In Khartoum, Samir Basta, tall and genial, has launched the biggest water project in Sudan, using UNICEF funds.

``We need to drill more, and that means more truck-mounted drilling rigs,'' he said. ``We've already turned over to the government a dozen big rigs, which we still repair and maintain. . . .'' Water springs from the desert

Drilling for water is complex and expensive. People dance for joy when water springs from the desert, but they are disappointed if holes are empty, or if water isn't drinkable, or runs out.

Yet in a country as vast as Sudan (22 million people in an area as big as Western Europe), Mr. Basta sees no choice but to keep drilling. A US truck-mounted drill, however, with equipment for wet and dry conditions, and for sand and rock, can cost $250,000. About one-third of UNICEF's Sudanese budget goes for water projects.

In other parts of Africa, as well, blueprints need to be found to:

Dig and repair more wells, by hand or drill.

Build more stone terraces and mini-catchment areas to hold on to brief, sharp, heavy tropical rains.

Eventually harness rivers such as the horseshoe-shaped Niger, whose delta has enormous water resources.

So far, sufficient money, ideas, and determination have been lacking. Much more work is needed -- such as the effort by Oxfam, the British relief agency, to provide refugee camps with water in eastern Sudan and Wollo Province, Ethiopia.

The richer countries of the world spent $360 billion on arms in 1980. Experts say that the money from just 10 days of that spending would meet the annual budget set up by the UN World Water and Sanitation Decade (1981-90).

Once wells are dug, the wells, pipes, and pumps need to be maintained and repaired. But governments lack the funds.

Cities, with their slum health hazards, receive most of the money spent for water in poorer countries. Now rural areas need more attention. Particularly active in rural areas are UNICEF and the aid agencies of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Canada, and West Germany.