Drought and mismanagement have devastated a French island. This is a lesson for the mainland

MAMOUDZOU, Mayotte (AP) — Water that is disappearing drop by drop in Mayotte, the poorest place in the European Union, is now an even more valuable resource. Taps run only one out of three days in this French territory off Africa’s east coast, due to years of drought caused by underinvestment and water mismanagement.

Diseases such as cholera and typhoid are on the rise again, and the French military has recently intervened to distribute water and ease the strain on supplies. The crisis is a wake-up call to the French government about the challenges and costs of managing human-caused climate change in remote areas of France.

Racha Mousdicoudine, a 38-year-old mother of two who lives in Labatoire, washes dishes with bottled water whenever she can. When the water taps run, she says, “I have to choose between taking a shower or preserving my water supply.”

“This shortage will become global in a few years. This is an opportunity for all French people to stand in solidarity with us. To be with us, to find solutions and to highlight the situation that is happening in Mayotte,” he said, “because it can happen in all French departments.”

She is helping to coordinate a protest movement called “Mayotte is Thirsty” that is demanding accountability for alleged embezzlement, leaks and lack of investment in sustainable water supply. In a recent protest, residents sang, shouted and banged empty plastic bottles as they marched to the Mayotte Water Management Company.

The government is pinning its hopes on the upcoming rainy season, although residents say it will not be enough to fix deep water problems. On a crisis visit last week, France’s minister for overseas territories thanked the people of Mayotte for “accepting the unacceptable”.

Water taps set the rhythm of life in Mayotte, an island region of about 350,000 people northwest of Madagascar.

Once every three days, between 4 pm and 10 am the water flows, families rush to prepare food, wash utensils, clean their homes and do everything else water-related. People living in poor areas of Mayotte without plumbing line up at public taps carrying paint buckets, plastic jerrycans, reused bottles – anything to collect water.

Then for 48 hours, they dry again.

“It is important to continue dialogue with the authorities, but we will not sit idle,” Mousdikoudine said. “If we stay at home, politicians will still say that the population is resilient, that we can manage this situation. But we cannot do this, lives are at risk, our physical and mental health, as well as the lives of our children are at risk.”

Disadvantaged communities have been hardest hit by the water crisis in Mayotte, where the population is majority black and many are struggling migrants from neighboring Comoros, facing a new government crackdown.

Previously, water was one of Mayotte’s scarce resources. The hilly and wooded district of Combani, in central Mayotte, is full of waterfalls and crisscrossed by rivers. The reservoirs of Kombani and Dzoumogne, further north, provide 80% of the water distributed on the island.

Now the bare banks of the reservoir at Kombani are broken by sunlight. It has a capacity of 1.75 million cubic metres, but is now only 10% full. Zaumogne Reservoir is at 6.5% capacity.

According to the National Weather Service, Mayotte is in its sixth year of drought, and was the driest year since 1997. Scientists say human-induced climate change has made drought more frequent and severe in some parts of the world.

But even without the drought, Mayotte’s water system was not able to meet local needs.

Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Vigier said during a visit last week that 850 leaks had been observed since September. Residents regularly film the facilities of water network management company SME, a subsidiary of large French utility Vinci, spewing water into the void and sharing them online.

And so far only one new borehole delivering a few hundred cubic meters of water per day has been put into service as part of the ambitious “Marshall Plan” for water announced in September.

The local water association blames water rationing not on shortage of water, but on lack of production capacity.

The central government is promising emergency work on drilling for new springs, renovating a desalination plant and expanding state distribution of bottled water to all residents, not just the most vulnerable.

Residents are worried it won’t come fast enough, and they’ve heard such promises before. The desalination plant has already faced allegations of years of delays, missed deadlines and pocketing subsidies.

It does not have to be this way.

In neighboring Comoros, with similar volcanic terrain and wet and dry seasons, the United Nations Development Program has a $60 million water management project aimed at better collecting rainwater and tracking use.

While Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world, France is one of the richest countries in the world and should not need UN assistance. But Mayotte’s water crisis highlights the inequalities and often awkward relationship between the central government in Paris and the former colonies that became part of France.

On Mayotte, wealthier residents invest in individual water tanks, at a cost of 1,600 euros ($1,700) for each installation, to ensure a constant flow of water.

But the majority of Mayotte’s population lives below the French poverty line and should heed the local government’s repeated messages that “every drop counts.” With 50% of people living on less than 160 euros ($170) a month, according to the state statistics agency Insi, a 5.50-euro ($5.90) ​​pack of bottled water imported from mainland France is not an option for most. Are.

Instead, they drink salt water or nothing at all. Hunger is also getting worse, as drought is reducing crop production.

Local doctors cite an increase in acute gastroenteritis – 20 patients were recorded in intensive care for this reason in one month – as well as typhoid and cholera.

But Ben Issa Ousseni, president of Mayotte’s departmental council, told local broadcaster Mayotte 1ère that he believed “the crisis is still before us.”

He does not rule out the possibility of complete disruption of supply to homes.


Cyril Castellitti contributed to this report from around Mayotte.


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