UNICEF provides WASH services to improve the nutrition and health status of communities in Mauritania
The Sahel is one the most water scarce regions in the world. Increasing water scarcity across the region lowers the water levels in traditional wells, forcing people to travel long distances to collect limited quantities of water, UNICEF as part of the implementation of the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS), is supporting wash and nutrition programmes in priority areas in Mauritania.
Water scarcity is not a recent phenomenon in the Sahel, it is being compounded by many factors including climate change, increased water demand and population growth. The impact of climate change in recent decades has been evident in the form of increased variability of rainfall, temperatures and wind speeds contributing to water scarcity, droughts, floods, sandstorms and heavy rain events.
Increasing water scarcity also has wider implications on the livelihood options of families, and increases the risk of migration, urbanization and conflict. Water scarcity and poor water quality increases also the risk of diarrhea amongst young children. When young children have repeated bouts of diarrhea, this impedes their ability to absorb nutrients, and irreversibly impairs physical and mental development of young children, increasing the risks of stunting and malnutrition. The burden for water collection falls mainly on women and girls, who have to spend long time to collect and queue for water, in addition to the physical burden of carrying water long distances and the increased safety risks they are exposed to. More time collecting water also reduces the time and energy available to go to school, affecting children’s enrollment, attendance and participation, and consequently their future opportunities.
Sustainable source of water
To address this situation in Mauritania, UNICEF is working to support WASH and Nutrition programmes, with joint programming undertaken in priority areas. One of the key interventions in the WASH programme, has been to support the Government of Mauritania through an innovative programme to reach the most vulnerable villages with a sustainable source of water.
In Mauritania, approximately 80 per cent of the country’s villages have populations of less than 500 people, and most of these are in remote locations. Owing to the remoteness of these villages, UNICEF has coupled manual drilling with solar powered water systems. The manual drilling approach enables boreholes to be drilled in very remote areas, at low cost. The low level of technology involved allows water sources to be drilled in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The conditions in Mauritania make it an ideal location for solar powered systems, due to the high levels of solar irradiation levels in the country (2099-2284 kWh/m2) and an average of 8 hours of sunshine per day). The solar systems offer a very efficient, cost effective, low maintenance and sustainable alternative to diesel powered systems, particularly for rural areas.
To support to the Ministry of Water Resources to increase the access to safe water in very remote areas, UNICEF and the project partner PRACTICA Foundation, developed a manual drilling toolkit to give technical guidance to the water sector in Mauritania on the application of the technology in the country. In response to this, five local construction firms are now operating to drill boreholes using solar technology, and to install solar panels. It has been estimated that the manual drilling approach is four times cheaper than drilling with conventional drilling rigs, and the local production of the tools has reduced cost by an additional 10%. Once installed, the solar powered water system cost an estimated 30 per cent less than diesel-powered systems.
In support to the government of Mauritania, the intervention has focused on providing water to those small villages with less than 150 inhabitants
In support to the government of Mauritania, the intervention has focused on providing water to those small villages with less than 150 inhabitants while the Government has focused on larger sized villages. Typical UNICEF systems in these villages comprise solar panels, water storage tanks (7 to 10 m3) with a chlorination system installed a water standpipe with two or three taps. Importantly, the systems have been designed to ensure that the maximum distance of any household to the water point is less than 500m, dramatically reducing the time required to collect water.
To ensure the sustainability of these water systems, user-fees are collected to fund the operation and maintenance of the systems. For larger villages, privately run start-up companies are responsible for maintaining the solar powered water systems.
To further support the water sector in Mauritania, UNICEF collaborated with PRACTICA to build the capacity on solar in the country through the publication of a technical guide for solar pumping in Mauritania.
As a result of the supported interventions between 2015 and 2017, 23,000 people have gained access to safe water, within 500m of their homes. Over this period, 19 mini solar drinking water networks and 40 solar powered water stations have been constructed.
The solar programme is being scaled-up at a national level. From 2019, all new rural water supply projects in Mauritania which target individual villages or groups of two to three villages with boreholes will only be powered by solar systems. For UNICEF, this has already increased the number of solar systems installed per year from 20 in 2017 to 53 in 2019, with further support anticipated under a forthcoming UNICEF-WFP (World Food Programme) partnership for resilience. Meanwhile, old diesel-powered systems are being progressively replaced by solar systems, either by the Ministry itself or the private operators managing large-scale rural water supply systems (70 in total).
Contribution to improve health and nutrition outcomes
The availability of safe water supply thanks to solar power directly contributed to improved health and nutrition outcomes for children in the Guidimakha region of Mauritania. In support of the Government, UNICEF first identified 20 villages with high rates of Severe Acute Malnutrition among children, secondly it constructed solar powered water supply systems and sanitation facilities at health center level, connecting them to the newly constructed water system, thirdly it promoted community-led total sanitation and hygiene across the region providing Hygiene Kits and training health personnel and community workers on Hygiene promotion, water treatment and safe storage. Mothers and children were provided with WASH Kits (Soap, hand washing utensils, water transport and storage container), and sensitized on essential family practices. As a result of these interventions:
- 6000 persons obtained sustainable access to safe drinking water,
- 15,000 persons ended open defecation
- 20 Health/Nutrition centers obtained access to adequate water and sanitation facilities.
As a result, the initiative contributed to reduce diarrhea prevalence in the target area from 20.6% in 2017 to 9.1% in 2019 and that of stunting from 26.3% to 25.2%.
The above-mentioned initiative provides one example on how UN agencies, as part of their UNISS engagement took up the challenge of responding to the ever increasingly harsh climate conditions in the Sahel.
To continue to support the solar sector for the region, UNICEF is in the process of establishing a Regional Solar Hub to strengthen West and Central African countries through the provision of technical advice on solar systems, developing solar materials (courses and resources in French and English, building on what has already been done) and visiting countries to offer in situ technical advice and to assess the bottlenecks for scaling up solar in the respective countries, while sharing knowledge on good practices and innovations from the region with the broader sector.