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.
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.
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.
In the spring of 2007, Nforba applied to the Tahoe-Baikal Institute’s (TBI) Summer Environmental Exchange. TBI, a Lake Tahoe, Calif.-based nonprofit, teaches American and international students about watershed management. Around the world, watersheds can be found in all states of usage, from the pristine waters of Siberia’s Lake Baikal – the world’s oldest, deepest, and largest freshwater lake – to the streams and rivers piped deep beneath cities. TBI hopes to balance human population growth and demands for development with the ecological health of these drainage areas.
Founded in 1992 as a student exchange between the polarized superpowers of the Cold War, TBI began hosting students and professionals from around the world in 1996. Nforba was the institute’s first African participant.
“Having Tantoh in the program was huge,” says TBI’s Jon Green, coordinator of the US program. “He really solidified that TBI’s mission is not just about Tahoe or Baikal – it’s about any watershed, anywhere.”
TBI’s Summer Environmental Exchange (SEE) is unique among environmental education programs for its hands-on, “place based” approach. Exposing participants to the effects of high-level development and resource management at Lake Tahoe, and then studying the Lake Baikal area, now moving from an industrial to a tourist-based economy, is a critical comparison for future researchers, lawmakers, and lobbyists, Mr. Green says.
“And for Tantoh’s work in Africa,” Green says, “because he is working at a grass-roots environmental level, the challenge is, ‘How the heck do we get clean, fresh water?’ People like Tantoh gain experience, ideas, expertise, and models they can take back and work with.”
In Tahoe, Nforba conducted a water-quality monitoring project. He quips that policymakers in his own country “would look at the research as useless,” but he put the skills he learned to good use in Cameroon, where he started a campaign to sensitize people on pollution.
In the second half of the SEE program, Nforba studied the impact of tourism on Lake Baikal, evidenced by the recent dramatic increase in litter. Streams in urban Cameroon and even in rural provinces like Nforba’s are often clogged with trash, and he has added recycling and waste re-use to his educational efforts.
Within Cameroon, news of the young environmentalist’s journey traveled fast.
“When I returned from the TBI exchange, I was welcomed back as a hero,” Nforba says. He was interviewed on TV. “People could not believe that just working on the environment could take me though three continents. It has created a lot of awareness, and it is a challenge to the rural community – many people are now talking about the environment, and many young people are taking action.”
Still operating with a very limited budget, Nforba is back at work in his garden, in schools, and in local villages, aided by a rotating cast of international volunteers – he’s hosted 12 so far.
Nforba is also sharing his watershed expertise as a mentor to other African villages struggling to develop local environmental protections through the Nabuur.com global volunteering website. This spring, Nforba and SYFA will begin a two-year partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre, training rural farmers how to sustainably maintain, harvest, and profit from agroforestry products.