In Mayotte, the water almost no longer flows

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For more than two months, the department of Mayotte has been facing a unprecedented water shortage. The consequences for the population are extremely serious (restrictions on water use, closure of schools, non-drinkable water) – residents only have access to drinking water for 16 hours every three days – and once again reveal the inequalities in access to public services suffered by this French territory in the Indian Ocean.

A “water crisis” with multiple factors

In Mayotte, the drinking water network depends mainly on what we call "surface water": coming from rivers and the two hill reservoirs located in the north and center of the island. Normally, the rains of the wet season, which extend from November to April, fill these reserves and ensure nearly 80% of the water distribution. The remaining 20% ​​is produced by the desalination plant located in Petite-Terre.

Map of Mayotte with the location of the two hill reservoirs
Location of the two hill reservoirs of Mayotte. Provided by the author

With climate deregulation, the rainy seasons are shortening, while drought phenomena are spreading and becoming more and more intense. At present the deductions are almost empty: the latest bulletin published by the State services indicates a alarming 6% occupancy rate.

In addition to this climatic factor, which is already seriously weakening the water resources of this island territory, there are also factors linked to the development of the island. In recent years, Mayotte has experienced extremely rapid transformations: development of industries and businesses, changes in lifestyles and consumption which have greatly increased the need for water. In a department in full construction, the development of the construction sector, which consumes 500 m every day3 over the 27 m3 of water consumed throughout the territory, also raises questions in this context of resource scarcity.

La population growth also explains that the infrastructures linked to water distribution, which date from the end of the 1990s, can no longer meet the needs of the population, twice as many today. Also, if the situation is presented as exceptional, this is not the first water crisis that the inhabitants of Mayotte have faced in recent years.

Since 2016, year of a water crisis also memorable, state services issue restrictions on water use each dry season. Following this crisis, the state invested to try to increase the production of drinking water from the desalination plant as part of the 2017 emergency water plan. But the emergency work carried out on already weakened infrastructure did not make it possible to increase the volume of water produced. New work has been planned in the face of the current crisis, with an investment of 4 million euros from the State, but it will take time before the population feels the concrete benefits.

The daily life of the Mahorais faced with “water towers” ​​and their hazards

To deal with the lack of water, the prefecture of Mayotte is setting up "water towers": the territory has been divided into four sectors, and water flows through the taps for 18 hours before being cut off. for 54 hours, according to a schedule communicated each week by state services. These devices were put in place in August in certain areas of the island in order to reduce consumption and overall flow. Concretely, this results in water cuts and tap water unfit for consumption when it is put back into service. In fact, stopping water distribution for 48 hours encourages the development of bacteria in the network which risks contaminating the water. However, these schedules are not always respected according to the residents, the water sometimes returns in the middle of the night or only for a few hours. This disorganization leads some residents to leave their taps open to be sure not to miss the return of water, despite the waste this causes.

The Mahorais thus organize themselves according to a mechanism which, although it seems well-oiled, nevertheless remains very restrictive and anxiety-provoking. On "water days", you must fill the containers for the upcoming blackout days: plastic bottles, buckets, basins, tanks. All homes adapt to meet hygiene needs: toilet, shower, hand washing, dishes. Some residents speak with shame of the deteriorating hygiene conditions in homes after months of restrictions. Some days the search for bottled water in stores on the island is like a real hunt, sometimes you have to visit three or four stores before finding bottled water. Some days no water is available.

Empty shelf of a store in Mayotte
Empty shelf of a store in Mayotte. Clementine Lehuger, Provided by the author

The prefecture of Mayotte and the regional health agency recommend boiling water in order to eliminate bacteria and make it drinkable. This solution is annoying, especially since it targets the most disadvantaged people who do not have access to bottled water, nor the means to boil and store water. Buying bottles of water (three times more expensive than in mainland France despite the state cap) is a luxury in a region where almost 80% of the population lives below the poverty line.

In neighborhoods where the most precarious populations are concentrated, drinking water supplies have been installed to try to stem the health risk looming over this water crisis. On the side of the roads, long cohorts, generally of women and children on foot, carry heavy cans of water.

Access to public services in Mayotte: an issue that does not date from the water crisis

Access to care and education is a constant challenge in the poorest department in France. Since the start of the crisis, schools, middle schools and high schools have regularly had to close their doors. Deprived of water, schools could not accommodate students in decent hygienic conditions. In the department that accuses highest rate of illiteracy and lower baccalaureate success rate, the closure of establishments further widens these inequalities.

Health services were already breathless before the water crisis due to recruitment difficulties in this department which is struggling to bring in qualified nursing staff despite growing needs. The concomitance of the water crisis and the gastroenteritis epidemic gave the local health services a cold sweat. According to the ARS, which notes with relief the decline in gastroenteritis cases, the epidemic was stronger than in other years due to the lack of access to water.

RFI, September 20, 2023.

What is the outcome of this crisis?

Faced with this disastrous public health situation, everyone fears the worst and wonders: in the event that weather outlook does not improve, what will happen when there is no water at all? The Minister for Overseas Territories promised at the beginning of November that every inhabitant of Mayotte would be given a one liter bottle of water per day, but the State services on site are questioning the feasibility of a distribution of such magnitude.

The port of Mayotte has a limited capacity to receive container ships and with what vehicles will these millions of bottles of water be transported? The assistance of the army, if it proves useful, will keep people in an irregular situation away from these distributions, for fear of being controlled and expelled.

As for the consequences of the mass arrival of these millions of plastic bottles, the authorities are well aware of the ecological disaster that this augurs, on this island surrounded by a fragile lagoon and already saturated with garbage.

Clementine Lehuger, Doctor of political science, University of Picardy Jules Verne (UPJV)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Thomas Dutour


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