Central Africa’s possession of the second-largest global reserve of dense rainforest attests to the relative abundance of water in the region. Yet inappropriate management of these resources has hampered the ability to respond to the demands of the growing populations of countries such as Cameroon. This has often been a major source of public grievances. In recent years, however, local Cameroonian populations have developed a range of grassroots water projects to seek positive change. These efforts are ultimately helping to respect basic human rights and sustain long-term stability and peace in the country.
The volume of water varies widely across Cameroon. Southern parts of the country have a reliable supply thanks to annual rainfall of up to 10,000 millimeters (394 inches) and are in fact frequently threatened by floods. The northern region averages just 500 mm (19”) and is exposed to recurrent shortages—residents rely mostly on rivers and groundwater sources that can dry up if not managed properly.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/292 of July 2010 recognized access to clean water and sanitation as a human right. In Cameroon, as in many other central African states, the biggest problem is not the availability of water resources but the poor management (including protection from contamination) and development of these, coupled with inadequate political will and long-term commitment. Corruption, too, can be a major issue: In March 2016, more than $66 million allocated for rehabilitation, reinforcement, and extension of Cameroonian water systems was allegedly embezzled.
The availability of potable water supply in many rural and urban areas of Cameroon has significantly lagged for the past two decades, while demand has increased tremendously. The amount of water lost from the system has also been a problem. The average rate of this rose from 25% in 1990 to 40% in 2000, which indicates an aging network and poor maintenance.
Public grievances relating to water shortages have long been present and continue to this day. In March 2016, in the southern city of Douala, dozens of political opposition leaders, together with hundreds of protesters, walked the streets holding banners and empty bowls to express their discontent with the difficulty of accessing potable supplies. One of the central causes of unrest has been the 2005 government decision to privatize the state water utility and hand over management to the Cameroon Water Utilities Corporation and the Camerounaise des Eaux (CDE) company. This arrangement has failed to meet the expectations of communities in the intervening years.
Community support has been fundamental in preventing tensions that might arise from the sustained low water supply from escalating into wider-scale conflict. In the absence of effective action at the national level, individuals, local government offices, traditional councils, and non-governmental organizations in the north and south of Cameroon have taken the initiative of constructing wells, boreholes, pipelines, and other means of water distribution that can provide for their own basic human rights.
A late 1990s study by the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre concluded that water projects—including those in Cameroon—that are run exclusively by governments are far less successful than those directly involving communities. Examples of this connection between local involvement and long-term success can be found in both the southern and northern parts of Cameroon.
In Bonadikombo, a suburb of the southern town of Limbe, a citizen-controlled system has ensured the availability of potable water in the community since its 1970s creation. In addition to external funds for the project—from the likes of Bread for the World, a Swiss government grant, and UNICEF—consumers have been levied according to their financial capacities. Each family with water facilities connected to their home pays a $255 one-time connection fee and a $12 annual consumption fee. Families gathering water from public taps pay $6 each per year.
The communal distribution system in Bonadikombo relies on the collaborative efforts of traditional authorities and community residents, with technical assistance from hydrological engineers. Although some financial and logistical challenges have been intermittently encountered, the sense of communal ownership has upheld effective water supply and attracted private investors to the broader economy.
In the drier north, there is a high vulnerability to cholera outbreaks as a result of unsafe drinking water. In the division of Mayo Rey, water is abundant during the short rainy season. In the dry season, however, women and children must walk up to 10 kilometers to gather it. The problem of scarcity has led to a number of local government authorities and the Spanish non-government organization Pozos de Agua Mayo Rey (Mayo Rey Water Wells) collaborating on several projects. From 2010 to 2014, these parties completed 32 new developments and obtained water for 23 communities, with flows ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 liters per hour. As reporting from Pozos de Agua Mayo Rey attests, these wells have contributed to improve the quality of life of around 230,000 people. This includes reducing truancy rates among students who no longer need to devote as much time to water collection.
Buea, in the southwest of Cameroon, is a highly populated student town. Here, boreholes and other projects constructed by individuals and community groups have again responded to ineffective water supply provided by CDE. These parties have created a number of self-contained schemes in communities such as Molyko, Muea, Soppo, and Long Street. There has, however, long been a need for greater outside support of such endeavors: A 2009 report, for example, found a significant paucity of financial and technical resources, as well as a lack of “integration of land and water management,” had often created major contamination threats, even among the community-led schemes in Buea.
Taken together, these individual and community-led activities have been instrumental in bridging gaps in water management stemming from the national authorities. As one measure of this, access to improved water resources in rural Cameroon increased from 34% to 53% from 1990-2015, as recorded by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. While admittedly starting from a much lower base, this compared with only a slight increase, from 82% to 85%, in terms of sanitation during the same period. The challenge is to continually build on these outcomes and aim to provide a basic human right for all Cameroonians.
Albert Mbiatem is a Research Fellow of the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London, and a PhD candidate at the University of Dschang, Cameroon.