By Patty Bates-Ballard
November, 2008

This morning when I flushed the toilet, I was very grateful. That’s because I’ve been learning about the water situation in Africa. 

In the western African nation of Cameroon, two-thirds of the people live in cities. But less than one in five city dwellers has access to potable water. As a single man, Julius Awafong can afford to buy his water from a tap near his home in the capital city of Yaounde. Since it often contains dirt and other foreign matter, he runs it through a filter he purchased. But many cannot afford to obtain clean water in this way.

I talked with Julius by email about how water corruption holds back the progress of his country and continent. He also sent me these photos.

PB: How do most people in your city get water?
JA: The majority of the people in my city go down to the quarter to get their water from streams and wells. Imagine the time and effort it takes to carry heavy tubs of water to your home everyday. But what’s worse, the water isn’t even clean. The wells and streams are very close to the community pit toilets and bathrooms. Of course people without running water have no indoor toilets or bathtubs. Wells and streams are exposed to the air, so dirt, chemicals and waste materials often corrupt these water sources, especially during floods. In swampy areas of the city where the majority of people live, the squalor and stench are extreme. You can see a video I made of people catching stream water here.

PB: Most Americans don’t believe they can function without a warm shower. Forgive my ignorance, but how do Cameroonians bathe? 
JA: We carry water in a bucket to the outdoor bathroom - which is for bathing - or some people also bathe in the pit toilet. We take the water from the bucket with our hands to throw on our bodies. 

Water Authority Corruption
PB: What would it take to get running water in people’s homes?
JA: It’s not that there is no system of water running through cities – there is. One must pay a fee and submit documentation to the National Water Corporation in order to get water to run through the pipes of a home. Once a resident has followed these steps, the water authority has everything legally required get water running at the home.

Yet even after completing the legal process, a family might wait forever without getting running water, except that they take the additional illegal step of bribing the chain of water connection officials. So not only is the water itself corrupted, but the water authority is rife with corruption. Corruption causes massive delays in the acquisition of water and makes it doubly expensive, so only those with big money can afford it. 

PB: Why is bribery so prevalent?
JA: I believe bribery is so prevalent because workers earn very meagre salaries. They are forced to play the bribery game to increase their incomes. In that way they can afford to satisfy their family’s needs and also have access to clean water themselves. But think about this: using corrupt money to educate or feed our children, in my opinion, is an act of dishonesty. So we end up corrupting our children’s futures with this system.

PB: Who does have running water in Cameroon?
JA: A very small group of wealthy people, members of some tribal lineages and political cronies have access to running water. With access to free water, government officials waste more, which means that water becomes scarcer to the larger population. And the wasting of water places a heavy burden on tax payers, who themselves have no access to potable water. 

Water Corruption and Elections
PB: What are the country’s leaders doing about the water situation?
JA: Just the opposite of what is needed. Water is in such high demand that during election season, politicians make a practice of sending their agents to communities in desperate need of water. These agents promise the people that the party has a new plan to bring water to their community if they will just vote for the party candidates. Having learned from previous unmet promises, people grumble and complain that this is just another false promise. 

So the agents now have begun making pretense of bringing a public water tap to the locality. Usually on the eve of the elections, workers bring shovels to dig holes for water pipes. Seeing what looks like tangible progress, the people get their hopes up that the promise of clean water is near. But immediately after the elections, the unfinished project is abandoned. This type of water corruption has tricked many people into joining political parties. 

Corrupt Contractors
PB: So corruption of water is pervasive, it seems.
JA: That’s not all. Another element of water corruption involves the exaggeration of the cost of water equipment. Some providers under government contract to bring water to a locality have been found to charge ten times the amount the installation actually should cost. Others have gone to local community members and asked them to contribute money so that the government can bring water to the community, even though the government already is compensating the contractor through taxes paid by that same community.

PB: Is the situation any different in the rural areas?
JA: Wealthy chiefs and political cronies have money to buy canned or imported water to drink. But in most rural villages, 90% of people rely on streams and springs for their own drinking water and to water their cattle. In most rural areas, people have to walk for long distances to get water. They have to carry all their dirty clothes and dishes to wash them. People have to take their baths at the stream, and women bathe their children there, and then carry the basins of washed clothes, water and children on their backs, even while climbing hills, to get home. But there is probably less infection in the water there because of lack of industry means lower rates of pollution. I travelled recently in the Northern provinces of Cameroon where the desert governs. There we have only a few natural marshy areas where water can be found throughout the entire year. The wealthy and influential cattle owners, chiefs and political bigwigs monopolise these precious water supplies for their cattle. The poor must transport water for cattle from manmade standing pools or manage to drive their cattle to the marshes after the rich landowners have watered their cattle.

The Health Toll
PB: It sounds like the corruption of water is taking a severe toll on the people of Cameroon.
JA: Yes. As a result of the corruption of water, diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid are rampant in our country and throughout most of Africa. A recent outbreak of cholera sent hundreds to the hospital and killed several in Douala, Cameroon. When a family member becomes ill from one of these diseases, families are forced to spend their meagre financial reserves in the ill-equipped and corrupt hospitals. If you don’t die from these diseases, they wreak havoc on your body so that you are never as strong as you were before. Either way, the health impacts quickly become economic impacts when families become so financially stretched that they are unable to afford the expenses of sending their children to school. 

The Bigger Picture - Stagnation
PB: How do you see water corruption affecting your country’s progress?
JA: Remember that these people constitute the work force of our country. It is therefore clear that this country and many African countries are forced to remain behind because those who ought to be the working force are weakened physically, financially and emotionally. The majority are in such ill-health that they cannot work effectively to build the nation.

PB: The leaders seem to be very myopic by only focusing on their own standard of living instead of improving the overall standard of living. What is the solution, in your view?
JA: There are many, many efforts to ensure access to clean water and none have yet succeeded because they try to operate within the current corrupt systems. While most Cameroonians are so disgusted about this pervasive corruption that they have no interest in politics, I believe the solution is a political one. I believe that this kind of entrenched corruption can only be eliminated by turning the system upside down and giving ordinary, working people the power to control the country’s decision-making. If ordinary people made the decisions, of course everyone would have potable water. That’s why I am a proponent of a radical system that would give poor people larger votes than wealthy people

PB: That sounds like a very difficult and long process when the need is so immediate.
JA: Not as difficult as it is to manage the one-person-one-vote model of democracy today. In Cameroon, many people say, “The voters decide nothing. Those that count the vote decide everything.” But vote sizing would change that too because it’s a total restructuring of the system. It’s designed, primarily, to heed the cries of poorer, working and middle class citizens who are the ones who suffer most from water corruption and all the other forms of corruption reigning in our country.  

Last fall, a gas leak forced my family to make do with cold showers for a few days. When we renovated a bathroom, we had just one functioning toilet. We thought we had it rough. Now I know better. Every time I take a warm shower, flush the toilet, wash my hands, or do a load of laundry or dishes, I think about how fortunate we are in America. I want to do more. But the problem is so overwhelmingly systemic. 

Five years ago, the UN affirmed that access to water is a basic human right. Scores of organizations are working to dig more wells and improve sanitationprovide low cost water cleaners and increase funding for clean water in Africa. After speaking with Julius, I wonder, do these solutions provide more than a "drop in the bucket", or is something more radical like vote sizing required? 

Sewage from a Yaounde pit toilet runs directly into a stream that many people must use as their source of water
A woman gets water from a town well
Cameroonians who can afford to buy tap water wait in line
A child walks away from a town toilet
Julius Awafong advocates systemic change
A northern Cameroon rural water source
Flushing with Gratitude: Learning About the Corruption of Water in Cameroon, Africa
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