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Cameroonian joins global quest for clean water

Tantoh Nforba promotes watershed preservation by education and example.

By Jesse HuffmanContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2008

Environmentalist: Tantoh Nforba stands in front of the Chua Chua River with his Save Your Future Association’s botanical garden beyond. (Note the women washing clothes in the river.)

Photos Courtesy of Save your Future Association

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Most Americans can fill up a glass with tap water and safely drink it. But there are no faucets where Tantoh Nforba lives and works. He is from the Northwest Province of Cameroon, a rural region of Africa where the World Health Organization estimates that only 44 percent of the population has access to potable water.

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The rest of the province’s 1.2 million inhabitants either drink from streams and lakes polluted with human and animal feces, contending with potential disease, or walk up to seven miles to collect clean drinking water from sporadically placed water pumps. The pumps are unreliable: Hard to maintain, they frequently fall into disrepair. And while water flows during the rainy season, many go dry later.

Today, Mr. Nforba has joined a global community stretching from the United States to Russia to Africa dedicated to making potable water more available.

Almost one-fifth of the world’s population lacks consistent access to clean water. The situation is made worse, says the United Nations Environment Program, by the water-intensive farming practices being used to feed the developing world’s exploding population. Nforba’s Northwest Province is 90 percent dependent on farming for survival. Its lack of clean drinking water is exacerbated by agricultural deforestation, aquifer depletion, and soil erosion.

“Water is life,” Nforba says by phone from Cameroon. “The crisis is so high here that people are dying from it every day.”

In a high school biology class, Nforba first saw the connections between the health of local streams and the overall health of the African ecology. Like many scientists and conservationists concerned with the environment and the availability of clean water, Nforba studied watersheds. Each watershed is a discrete basin, defined by ridges, hills, or mountains, where drainage from rain or snow runs downhill into a river, lake, or ocean.

Cause and effect in a watershed is simple: Whatever happens upstream af­­fects the whole downstream ecology. Land used for development or agriculture decreases a watershed’s ability to clean and filter water. Pollution from soil, air, or water that enters the system at any point accumulates and concentrates as it moves downstream.

In Cameroon, Nforba runs the Save Your Future Association (SYFA), a nonprofit that teaches environmental programs in local schools, churches, and prisons. He operates a demonstration organic garden to educate rural youths and farmers on the value of organic farming and watershed protection. Nforba’s garden, on the banks of the Chua Chua River, was planted in 2006 with a fabulous array of flowers. The plants are a visible indicator of the river’s health and a tool he hopes will change the behavior of people who are used to washing their clothes and dumping waste in the river.

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