Little water, high contamination

Suzie writes*

France’s Mayotte department is going through its most disastrous drought since 1997 (National Géographique). For this small island in the Indian Ocean, water is a scarce resource. Mamoudzou, the capital, depends at 80% on the wet season to recharge its reservoirs but shortening of the latter drove the city into a high state of alert for water scarcity.

Fresh water is missing and the little that remains is likely to be contaminated. In Mayotte, rivers are the outlet for all kinds of spills harming the environment and the local population. The bidonvilles (slums) of Mamoudzou are not connected to the water network, so the poorest collect their domestic water from street sellers, if not from near streams. However, in both cases, the water is not treated, exposing them to higher sanitary risks like gastro-enteritis. (portail Outre-mer, santé).

The drastic low quality of water in rivers is due to pollution and customs (TV5 Monde). On the one hand, Mamoudzou has a bad management of garbage and wastewater (DEALM). The city lacks a sewerage network, so 82% of the population has to rely on themselves or private companies to clean up their septic tanks. As a result, there is faecal matter in water. Collecting waste and recycling are also issues faced by the municipality, and too often, garbage containing toxic products ends up in open-cast landfills. On the other hand, the Mahorais, without access to running water, wash their cars and clothes with harmful household products directly in rivers. Therefore, all these pollutants make the water undrinkable.

Despite the prohibition of using rivers as a big washing machine and awareness campaigns about running water use (SMEA), Mahorais still store water in makeshift containers for longer than 48 hours, increasing the spread of bacteria.

Now, not only rivers have bad quality water. Since September 2023, in Mamoudzou, water reaches taps only 3 days per week (Prefet de Mayotte). Cut-off limits water use but also increases risks of leaks that can contaminate the drinking water. In short, the water might leave the treatment plant pure and arrive dirty at the sink.

Mayotte’s water is heavily polluted. Thus, the new measure taken by the government has awakened fear of an ecological crisis heightened among environmentalists (Le Monde). To support the local population millions of water bottles will be sent by the government, bringing an inordinate amount of plastic to the island. The pressure on Mamoudzou to find solutions to collect the empty water bottles is high.

In Mayotte, saving the environment would preserve people’s health — and vice versa.

Bottom Line: What little fresh water that remains is contaminated by local practices and the “solution” — plastic bottles — may make pollution even worse.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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