November 30, 2023
Plagued by drought, this French island is running out of drinking water

Plagued by drought, this French island is running out of drinking water


When Racha Mousdikoudine turns on the kitchen tap, she never knows what will happen.

“I might not get any water,” she told CNN. “Maybe I can get 30 minutes of water. Maybe the water will only arrive after hours of waiting.”

For the past four months, Mousdikoudine and her two children have had little or no running water at their home in the French territory of Mayotte, an island of around 310,000 inhabitants in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Africa, between Mozambique and the island. from Madagascar.

Mayotte faces an unprecedented water crisis in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history, as the impacts of the man-made climate crisis collide with a chronic lack of investment in the water system.

The island is facing the worst drought since 1997. Its two water reservoirs have reached a “critical level of decline” – one is at 7% capacity and the other at 6%, according to the most recent estimates, and are on the brink. to dry.

This led to drastic water cuts. Residents only have access to water for about 18 hours at a time every two days, according to a calendar published by City Hall, the local subdivision of the French government. Many say the little water they have is often contaminated and undrinkable.

Residents have had to deal with school closures and a growing health crisis, while bottled water has become a rare – and expensive – commodity on supermarket shelves.

Although it is 8,000 kilometers away from mainland France, under French law, Mayotte is as French as the suburbs of Paris.

Colonized by France in 1841, the island was formally recognized as a French department in 2011, meaning it has the same legal status as the 96 departments that make up mainland France.

The French government responded to the crisis. In September, it sent 600,000 liters of bottled water to the island for the most vulnerable residents and deployed soldiers and civil servants to help distribute water. The government has also suspended water bills for all residents.

But many Mahorais – a term used to refer to the people of Mayotte – still feel abandoned.

Douainda Attoumani, 27, is scared of what the future holds. She lives in a house of 10 people, with her parents, her sister, four brothers and two cousins. Each day is more difficult than the last, she told CNN.

“The authorities seem absent from our daily suffering,” she said, adding, “when we don’t have water, what are we really going to do? We will die of thirst.”

Chafion Madi/AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers unload packages of water after the arrival of a ship on the French island of Mayotte carrying 600,000 liters of bottled water for distribution to the department’s most vulnerable people, on September 20, 2023.

Many, like Mousdikoudine, are angry.

“I’m French, but without autonomy, because I don’t have water,” she said. “I have to choose between looking for water for my family and going to work. In a country like France, having to make these types of decisions is unimaginable.”

The simple acts of washing or pouring glasses of water for her daughters, aged 7 and 9, became such a challenge that she and her husband decided to send the children to live with their grandmother in the French territory of La Réunion, around two years. flight time from Mayotte.

The decision was extremely difficult, Mousdikoudine said, but she felt she had no choice.

“I reached a point where I could no longer guarantee the safety of my children. Prepare appropriate meals for them, take care of their hygiene, things like going to the bathroom, washing.”

‘At any moment things can get out of control’

Water in Mayotte is not only scarce, but what is available is often contaminated.

Online, residents use the hashtag #MayotteASoif (Mayotte is thirsty) to share videos of the brown, sediment-filled liquid coming out of its taps. Some, including Mousdikoudine, took to the streets in protest.

The Mayotte Regional Health Authority (ARS) identified several cases of contaminated water. In mid-October, cases of “non-compliant” water were around 3%, ARS general manager Olivier Brahic told CNN.

Many residents, however, believe the water quality issue is a much bigger problem.

Estelle Youssouffa, a lawmaker from Mayotte in the French National Assembly, told CNN that the reason authorities can say the water is drinkable is because they only test it when it has been flowing for several hours after an interruption.

ARS confirmed to CNN that the tests are carried out after 12 hours of water running after a cut.

Mousdikoudine and Attoumani said that after a cut, water only starts flowing after running for hours. But most residents cannot give up water during the period when it is rationed.

Marion Joly/AFP/Getty Images

A dry reservoir in Dzoumogne on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean on October 15, 2023.

Grégoire Merot/AP

Women fill buckets with water in the M’tsamoudou district, near Bandrele, in Mayotte, Thursday, October 12, 2023.

As the water crisis continues, so do health risks. The island is experiencing an epidemic of acute gastroenteritis, according to Dr. Soumeth Abasse, president of the medical committee at Mayotte Hospital.

Gastroenteritis epidemics are not uncommon in the summer months, Abasse said, but this one is extending into the fall. “We have also had a worsening of cases,” she added. “Some cases were a little more difficult, more complicated, with many cases ending up in intensive care.”

He said the causes of the epidemic are contaminated water and minor hygiene standards resulting from people’s reduced access to water, which affects their ability to wash their hands, shower, flush toilets and clean their homes.

“We are always afraid of a possible explosion of these waterborne diseases,” Abasse said. “At any time, things could get out of hand and we don’t have enough staff to deal with it.”

The lack of staff at the Mayotte hospital is just one of many infrastructure problems facing the French department.

Mayotte’s population has nearly doubled since 2007 and infrastructure improvements have not kept pace, Youssouffa said.

Even outside of dry periods, water production in the territory is insufficient, according to the City Hall, with water cuts being a regular occurrence on the island, long before this year’s exceptionally low rainfall.

The increasing demands of a larger population, coupled with the impacts of climate change, which are making droughts more frequent and more severe, have placed enormous pressure on the island’s water resources.

“The rain has been decreasing for years,” Youssouffa said. “We saw the trajectory of cyclones and the trajectory of rainfall changing in the region… and this is directly the impact of climate change.”

For years, talks have been underway to build a third water reservoir and a second desalination plant to increase drinking water production capacity in Mayotte. But none of the projects have started, according to City Hall.

Mayotte has received funding to help with its dire water situation. In 2014, the European Commission allocated 22 million euros ($24 million) to Mayotte for its water supply, as part of a broader financing package.

But in 2021, payments from the entire fund were suspended after an audit found “serious irregularities and deficiencies” in the management of the money, before resuming this year. So far, less than half of the money allocated for water has been spent, the city council told CNN.

Marion Joly/AFP/Getty Images

A man fills a bucket with water in Dzaoudzi on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte on November 7, 2023.

Mahorais continues to struggle with the financial repercussions of the dire water crisis.

In July, the French government introduced a price freeze on bottled water, but a six-pack of 1.5-liter bottles can still cost up to 12 euros ($13), according to CNN affiliate BFMTV. This makes it inaccessible for the majority of the island’s population. And that’s if bottled water is available in the first place.

Elsa Leduc, an aid worker who moved from Paris to Mayotte in September, said trying to find bottled water has become a daily task. “Every time I go to the supermarket there is no water,” she said. “I have to go to smaller stores that are much more expensive.”

Leduc is lucky to be able to afford the high prices, but most on the island cannot. According to INSEE, 77% of Mayotte’s inhabitants live below the national poverty threshold, a figure five times higher than in the rest of France.

“The problem with the water crisis is that it is making Mayotte uninhabitable,” said Youssouffa. “The crisis is so serious that it is interrupting public services. He is interrupting his schooling. It’s disrupting business. It’s not a normal life.”

Mousdikoudine and Attoumani, like many Mahorais, wonder why the authorities haven’t prepared for this.

“Since 2018, we have had small cuts (of water) and we could see that there was no rain,” said Attoumani, “so they should have anticipated, found solutions.”

“The whole system is literally falling apart before our eyes, because it is closing in,” Youssouffa said. “You can’t function without water.”

All hopes are in the rainy season, which starts in December. But Mousdikoudine fears that won’t be enough. “I know things are going to get worse.”

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