DOUALA, Cameroon, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Cameroon’s economic capital was hit by yet another devastating flood in June, health experts warned that the city would fall into a familiar pattern.
The flooding would leave behind contaminated groundwater and large areas of standing water that attract breeding mosquitoes, they said. As a result, the number of deaths from cholera and malaria would shoot up.
But this time, the Cameroon government took action to try to stop such epidemics before they start, and make sure Douala is prepared for the next time heavy rains hit.
As part of a new project aimed at helping communities adapt to recurrent flooding, the government is installing rainwater harvesting systems in vulnerable Douala neighbourhoods.
The idea is simple: catch and store clean water for people to use whenever flooding makes groundwater unsafe.
“Natural disasters have gotten our authorities to think about saving water and saving the health of their citizens,” said Jackson Abwe, a teacher in Makepe, one of the neighbourhoods involved in the project.
After the floods in June, the government put $185 million into Douala’s Urban Development Programme for the Emergency Rehabilitation and Constriction of Infrastructure fund.
Along with improving drainage systems and rehabilitating road networks, the money is going into the first phase of the rainwater harvesting project, which is due to be completed at the end of October.
According to Benoit Som, one of the deputy mayors of the Douala V council, 15 squatter settlements in Douala will get two rain harvesting systems each, at a cost of 1.3 million fcfa ($2,500) per system.
Each system includes tanks installed outside houses with corrugated iron roofs. During the rainy season, rainwater flows down the roofs and into the tanks.
In some cases, water is also stored in larger iron and concrete water storage tanks, which have a capacity of around 80,000 litres.
The collected water is then treated and connected to a plumbing system to be used by the households near the tank.
The council is also encouraging individual households to set up their own rainwater harvesting systems.
According to health experts, 60 percent of Douala’s population of three million depends on water from wells, many built close to pit latrines. When the area floods, sewage can get washed into the community’s water supply.
“Both the urban poor who cannot afford portable water and the well-to-do who suffer from persistent (water supply) cuts rely on the groundwater supply, which is vulnerable to contamination,” said Dr. Ngide Isaac of Douala Laquintini Hospital.
He said the number of cholera cases in the city jumps from less than 50 per week to over 400 during rainy seasons that involve flooding.
Council officials believe the rainwater harvesting project can help cut those numbers in the future.
“The project will help strengthen the adaptive capacity of the beneficiary communities, reduce the risks faced from the effects of climate change like floods, and in turn influence the policy to promote sustainable management of water resources,” said Augustine Njamshi, executive director of the Bio-Resource and Development Centre in Cameroon.
Council members say that even after the project is completed, they intend to propose that the government oblige city planners to include rainwater recycling systems in all new builds.
“Ideally, each public and private building in Douala city should possess its own water harvesting system,” Gustave Ebanda, second deputy mayor of the Douala V council, told journalists when the project was announced.
Environment experts say the project is important and will improve both health and sustainability efforts.
“A big city like Douala needs alternative sources of potable water, and rainwater harvesting is one of those cost-effective and environmentally friendly sources,” said Tchepnang Barthelemy, coordinator of the Centre for Assistance to Justice and Animation for Development, a non-govermental organisation in Limbe.
Rainwater harvesting can cut the need to build other expensive water-supply systems, and create the ability to farm or build in areas with no other access to water, he said, as well as making floods less destructive by capturing more water.
For the residents of Douala, however, what is most important is that they can have access to clean water when they need it.
“Women and children sometimes spend up to eight hours per day searching for portable water,” said Marie Noel Ebang, a shop attendant in Makepe, which recently got two rain harvesting systems. “This rainwater storage device has improved access to safe drinking water and decreased the time needed for water collection.” (Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)