Desert capital struggles with water crisis
El mina - where rubbish is used to build
NOUAKCHOTT, 15 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - Water
supplies are running out in Nouakchott, the desert capital of
Mauritania, where it rains on average six days each year. The
ancient underground lake that supplies the city is steadily
Unless the government builds a pipeline to bring fresh water
from the Senegal river 200 km to the south, or a desalinisation
plant to distil drinking water from the nearby Atlantic Ocean,
its taps will eventually run dry.
More than 600,000 people now live in Nouakchott, which was
little more than a fishing village near the Atlantic Ocean when
Mauritania gained independence from France in 1961.
The country’s new capital was deliberately sited at Nouakchott
because the rocks beneath the city contained a vast reservoir of
fresh water, known as the Trarza Lake. Over the past 43 years
this has supplied Nouakchott’s inhabitants with drinking
The problem is, Nouakchott was only planned to be a small town
of 15,000 inhabitants. It is now 40 times larger and the
underground reservoir it sits upon is rapidly drying up.
The Trarza underground lake is not rain-fed, and so its water
supply, although once large, is not renewable. Engineering
studies have warned that its reserves could be used up
completely in 50 years.
“The population explosion in Nouakchott threatens to undermine
all the studies undertaken so far to assure a water supply in
our main urban centres,” Amadou Sall, a demographic expert
told IRIN. “Nouakchott was projected to have a population of
300,000 by the year 2000, but it already has more than 600,000.
That makes the task very difficult and means that we are always
looking for stop-gap solutions without following scientific
Water still runs for most of the time in the taps of the
wealthy. But it is in chronically short supply in the dusty
shanty towns where most of Nouakchott’s population lives.
And with more nomads flocking into the city each year as the
southward creep of the Sahara desert destroys their grazing
lands, the problem is growing worse.
“Unless we adopt a water policy based on scientific studies
that take into consideration the scarcity of water as a
resources, we will be heading for a real catastrophe in the
medium to long term, because we will be endangering the future
of our main urban centres, particularly Nouakchott,” Selom
Mohamed Salem Ould Sidi a water engineer told IRIN.
Rainfall in Nouakchott rarely climbs above 200mm per year. There
is a slim chance of rain from July through to October. But for
the rest of the year, dry desert winds blow sand and dust
through the city, where daytime temperatures regularly soar to
over 40 degrees.
During the dry season the pressure drops in the water pipes and
whole areas of the city are left without water – usually the
poorest areas, where President Maaouiya Ould Taya has least
Nouakchott’s growth has been rapid and largely unplanned.
Successive droughts since the 1970s have destroyed the fragile
environment of the desert nomads who form the backbone of
Mauritania’s three million population
Hundreds of thousands of them abandoned cattle raising and moved
to the towns. Most headed for Nouakchott.
Huge areas of shanty dwellings cluster around the capital. Their
residents have no running water, no mains electricity and their
homes are constructed out of wrecked cars, tyres, cardboard
boxes and anything else they can find.
Many of the structures are semi-permanent as some of the older
residents cling to the hope that one-day they may be able to
return to the nomadic existence of their youth.
M’barek, a 20 year old unemployed man who lives in Kebba, one
of the shanty towns of the poor El mina district of Nouakchott,
is incensed that he has to spend his limited cash on buying
“Buying a barrel of water to wash clothes and for the family
to wash is mad, especially for someone who’s unemployed,”
A 100 litre aluminium barrel of water sells for 200 to 400
Ouguiyas – between 80 cents and US$ 1.60 in an area where
whole families survive on less than US$1 per day.
The high cost of water has made bathing a luxury.
“I can’t bathe my children every day, it’s too expensive
and I can only wash our clothes once a week – unfortunately
though, we don’t have too many clothes,” complained Salma, a
mother of eight.
The irony is that these slum dwellers who are forced to buy
water by the bucket from mule and donkey carts have to pay up to
15 times more for the life giving liquid than the residents of
Nouakchott’s middle class suburbs who enjoy the luxury of
With residents unable to afford enough water to perform their
daily ablutions, diarrhoea epidemics periodically hit the shanty
towns. These can prove fatal for the young and the very old. In
certain areas, cholera outbreaks occur.
But it is not only Nouakchott that faces water shortages.
The Trarza underground lake provides water for a string of towns
in southwestern Mauritania which are now feeling the pinch.
The water from many boreholes has already turning brackish. In
some cases, it has become so salty that it can not even be used
Many other desert towns which lie beyond the Trarza lake are
also prone to water shortages. These include the oases of Kiffa,
Tijikha and Atar, which lie in a sweeping arc 600km east and
northeast of the capital
Although these towns rely on rain-fed underground water
reserves, in years of low rainfall, their water turns briny and
undrinkable. At such times, the state water company SNDE only
allows water to run through the taps for two hours each day.
Some towns run completely dry during Mauritania’s
eight-month-long dry season.
Things are so bad in Magtaa Lahjar, 400 km east of Nouakchott,
that water has to be transported about 100 kilometres by truck.
Local cattle herders are then forced to move their stock 150 km
south to the Senegal River – the only perennial river in the
Residents of Tijikja, which lies 400 km north of river, fear
that thirst will decimate their cattle which huddle around the
last few drinking holes left in the oasis. They are worried that
what little remains of their traditional culture will soon be
In Kiffa, where people build houses without windows to keep out
the sand and the heat, the water brought through boreholes turns
brackish as the temperature rises in September and October,
making it unfit for human consumption and too salty even for
The Japanese government has been helping Mauritania to sink new
boreholes in such areas. However water experts say that these
are all too often situated close to the homes of the friends and
supporters of President Ould Taya, rather than in the locations
where they would secure the best and most reliable water supply.
Last year the government announced that it had been awarded a
US$270 million grant by the World Bank and a group of Islamic
funds to embark to pipe water from the Senegal river to
Nouakchott and a large swathe of southwestern Mauritania.
The ‘Aftout Saheli’ project, seeks to divert water from the
river - that marks Mauritania’s southern border with Senegal
– and pump it through a purification unit before distributing
it by pipeline.
However, its implementation remains blocked because the
government of Senegal has made its approval of the project
conditional on the resolution of a separate long-standing water
dispute between the two countries.
Mauritania has a 400 km coastline and the country’s two
largest cities, Nouakchott and the northern port of Nouadhibou,
are both by the sea, so the construction of desalinisation
plants has also been considered.
Indeed, Nouakchott originally relied on a small desalinisation
plant before the Chinese came in to drill bore holes to tap into
the city’s underground lake.
However, the cost of providing fuel to run a desalinisation
plant big enough to supply the city’s present population would