WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia — A developing nation, Burkina Faso ranked 184 out of the 191 countries assessed in the United Nations Development Program’s 2021-2022 Human Development Report. At least 40% of the population lives in poverty, and water is only accessible to half of the poorest citizens. In a recent interview, The Borgen Project spoke with Donald Brooks, co-founder and current President of the Burkina Faso-based organization Initiative: Eau. Brooks discussed water scarcity in Burkina Faso and how the organization is working to combat it.
Water Scarcity in Burkina Faso
“Five kilometers is the average distance that women and children walk in rural Burkina Faso to get access to safe drinking water,” Brooks said. As of 2022, nearly 70% of the Burkinabè population was living in rural communities, with the remaining 30% concentrated in cities like Ouagadougou and Fada N’Gourma. While urban dwellers typically need only travel five to 10 minutes to the nearest tap, this remains a far cry from the near-universal access to piped water known in the United States and other developed nations.
Underscoring the problem, as of 2020, an alarming 53% of Burkinabè citizens did not have access to basic water services. Furthermore, a 2018 study found 20% of the country’s common-access water handpumps to be non-functional.
These statistics point to a larger problem of stagnation when it comes to the country’s progress with WASH, a set of principles underpinning U.N. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. Adopted in 2015, the SDGs are a set of 17 guideposts for international development. SDG 6 targets universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation and hygiene services, collectively referred to as WASH.
A 2020 country profile published by Water and Sanitation for All found that just 9% of Burkina Faso’s population had access to basic hygiene services, and only 22% had access to basic sanitation. Additionally, the report showed that open defecation remained common for 40% of the population.
Particularly in rural communities, where only 33% of people have basic water access, inconsistent funding and governance of water sources pose significant challenges to advancing WASH initiatives. “A lot of development over the years has focused on providing water infrastructure, but then there’s often insufficient foresight in planning the governance structures,” Brooks explained. This leads to wasted investment capital in the long run.
With a per capita GDP of about $833, Burkina Faso’s citizens earn an average of little more than $2 a day. As startup costs for water infrastructure range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, it is critical to invest, not only in building water infrastructure, but also in maintaining it.
Initiative: Eau’s Solutions
Brooks locates water scarcity in Burkina Faso at the intersection of several poverty-related “development challenges,” including public health, education and nutrition. Talking with The Borgen Project, he explained how an interest in public health and organizations like the BARKA Foundation inspired his co-founding of Initiative: Eau in 2013.
A non-governmental organization (NGO), Initiative: Eau takes a dual development-humanitarian aid approach to advancing SDG 6 in Burkina Faso. It conducts research and implementation projects aimed at achieving WASH measures and improving public health in the Gourma-Liptako region. For instance, one project correlated data on water infrastructure governance, drinking water services and water-borne diseases to improve urban water service planning in Fada N’Gourma. More recently, Initiative: Eau has focused on working with “water point committees,” groups that oversee urban water sources that exist in what Brooks termed “kind of a juristic void” — areas that fall outside the purview of public utility oversight.
Throughout Fada N’Gourma, Initiative: Eau addresses this problem by applying its earlier research to organize training programs that equip committee members to become stewards of vital water sources. Artisanal mechanics educate committees on routine maintenance, what to look out for when a pump or pipe breaks and how to respond. Initiative: Eau also provides maintenance tools, ledgers for record-keeping, a cash box to cover out-of-pocket expenses and training in basic finance. This support enables water point committees to maintain WASH infrastructure improvements.
Alongside supporting urban water point committees, since 2019, Initiative: Eau has also been fighting water scarcity in Burkina Faso through direct provision projects. In rural towns like Gando, this has meant building a simple hand pump. In other villages, such as Sebtenga and Soumagou, Initiative: Eau has installed solar pumps and piping to create water taps for health centers that previously had to lug water in from outside.
Notably, every Initiative: Eau implementation project includes a substantial training component. Its on-the-ground work to enable water access and proper sanitation and hygiene practices in the public health sector, especially, is making a critical impact in a country where 345 clinics have closed due to jihadist activity. Yet, Burkina Faso still faces challenges in implementing WASH initiatives.
Aside from economic challenges, physical water scarcity poses a great challenge in the Sahel region, which is undergoing desertification. Additionally, WASH programs across the country have been paused in recent years due to ongoing civil unrest, which has displaced over half a million people since late 2019.
To those interested in supporting the fight against water scarcity in Burkina Faso, “I would say think global, act local,” Brooks stated.
– Finneas Sensiba