Less flow, more pressure: accessing water in N’Djamena in times of Covid-19

“You need pressure to make water flow” Nikhil Anand

Pressure is not always a metaphor for “constraints” or “burden”; it is also a concrete and basic requirement for municipal water supply. Across many cities of the Global South, end-users, city officials, development NGO professionals or agents of the water business (street porters, water fountain managers or public water tap owners) struggle to provide and access water services – a process often characterized by negotiation and contestation. In N’Djamena, Chad, hardships linked to everyday water access fuel two distinct paradoxes. First, maintaining water pressure is a constant source of economic pressure. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, end-users were already compelled to adapt their “hydraulic habits” to their needs and financial resources. Evidence on the ground indicates that the pandemic has introduced a second paradox: the Chadian state has taken official steps to mitigate economic pressure in the daily life of inhabitants in Chad funding a 6 month free water policy, but this has done little in practice beyond decreasing the water pressure (the necessary force that pushes water through pipe, makes it flow and available to end-users) for N’Djamenois who need it most. As such, this blog post argues that economic pressure for the poor has increased while water pressure has dropped as a result of the pandemic and a government intervention that explicitly aimed at addressing the issue Quite predictably, the pandemic has generated additional economic constraints on informal businesses and might have complicated an already knotty landscape in addition to tremendous climate-related problems, foremost among them flooding. However, available evidence suggests that the policy designed to alleviate the burden of bills on those in need failed. Instead of increasing water availability, it reduced and in some cases even cut the water flow. The limited extension of the water supply network also made the policy pointless to many, while wealthier end-users connected to the water supply network enjoyed the policy as a bonanza. This demonstrates that infrastructural expansion, not just emergency funding, is critical to any meaningful water and sanitation improvements.

N’Djamena facing its Cameroonian twin Koussérie. Open Street Map

Unlike other cities in Chad, N’Djamena, a city of 1 million facing Cameroon, in the Centre-West of the country has extensive groundwater reserves. Yet, the supply network is patchy and covers only limited portions of the urban area; a situation comparable to numerous African metropolises, where networks have been multifarious and fragmented since colonial times. The Société Tchadienne des Eaux (STE), Chad’s national public water company, manages the official pipe network that barely exceeds 200 kilometres, although it has been expanded through development projects. The patchy and poorly managed water network leads to the emergence of multiple coexisting practices of supplying water, a striking feature of many cities across the Global South as explored by scholarly research on Alternative Service Delivery (ASD). In N’Djamena supply schemes may rest on local solutions offered by costly boreholes or more affordable handpumps, directly, or indirectly through deliveries from water porters and vendors. Porters are often based near a water tower equipped with a tap from where they refill and rest in between deliveries. This shapes a reticular, local supply economy centred around a carré (block), a market or a handful of streets. N’Djamenois have to navigate this multiplicity and plan their days bearing in mind the amounts of water they will require for routine or extraordinary usages, where they will find such amounts and how they will channel them. Sometimes end-users opt for a combination of local and networked solutions, adapting supply schemes to various domestic usages, buying some of their water here or there. Households routinely balance between costs (while buying water from a porter is more expensive than tap water, the price to install a tap water connection is too high for many N’Djamenois), water quality (STE water is often seen as healthier than handpumped water, for example) and seasonal availability. Economic pressure due to costs and limited availability intersect with water’s uneven flows.

In April 2020, President Idriss Deby announced that the state would pay for all water bills for 6 months (this policy ended in October 2020). The provision formed part of an economic emergency package which included a “vulnerable population solidarity fund”, help with electricity bills and tax cuts. The policy’s official goal was to ease people’s economic pressure. But easing economic pressure can also reduce water “pressure”, the needed force that makes water flow. Indeed, residents reported that this unprecedented move was followed by increased power cuts and water supply pressure drops, since the network struggled to catch up with demand requirements. Investigations undertaken by Tchadinfo journalist Maimouna Mahamat Ousmane in April 2020 capture this: 

Infuriated STE customers claimed that the policy resulted in tap water usually “arriving” at 1 or 2am, before being cut around 5am or 6am. Buying water outdoors from vendors or private taps had often become more reliable, they said. But doing so forced some households to reportedly spend 3,000 or 4,000 CFA Francs (4.5-6 euros) daily in a harsh time of drought and Ramadan, a huge amount given that minimum monthly wages are approximately 90,000 francs. Low pressure is a recurring issue that water end-users normally bypass through using compressors, if they can afford it. Yet, residents could not predict that a pandemic would decrease water flow even while water had become officially free. Free water, yes, but also less water across the city. A bitter irony which has aggravated already painful situations.

As elsewhere, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between new, Covid-19-related trends and patterns which are inherent to the everyday hardships in the informal sector. I had to cancel a field trip to N’Djamena in November-December 2020 to investigate how Covid-19 affected the water supply networks but my colleague and research collaborator Saradoum Madj-Yanouba updated me about developments in the field sites where we worked together in 2019. Water porters, fountain managers and end-users mostly reported that the free water policy brokered by the government had no effect on their business. Anyway, people had other pressing worries: the rainy season was hard in 2020 across the whole Sahel strip and formidable rainfalls entailed severe flooding, leading to the complete isolation of entire neighbourhoods in N’Djamena. The rainy season is always a low-point for water trade because roads are flooded and don’t allow porters to travel around and deliver water properly, compelling households to, for example, send children to walk long distances to collect water. However, 2020 was particularly dreadful. In a November 2020 report, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claimed that close to a record 400,000 people had been directly affected by the flooding in 2020 in Chad, including 35,000 in N’Djamena, a number hardly seen before.

In December 2020, Saradoum revisited the Chagoua place à vivre (community square), a dynamic space hosting social and commercial activities, including a water tower, which is managed by neighbourhood associations with the support of the city hall. Baptiste*, 22 years old, the new fountain manager of the water tower, currently works with only three porters and sells very small amounts of water. Arguably, the free water policy enacted by the government facilitated his daily life and business because bills were paid for by the state. However, the policy did nothing to boost the consumption and customers remained very rare. Yes, he didn’t have to pay for water but his customers did. Besides, lockdown effects made their access to water even more difficult as customers weren’t really allowed to visit the premises of the community square to buy water.

Water porters refilling up at the Boutalbagar market water tower. Photograph by the author

Water tower by the Chagoua community square. Photograph by the author

The Chagoua community square, hosting neighbourhood activities. Photograph by the author

Hence, empirical evidence suggests that the policy failed assisting those in most need. In fact, many respondents like water workers in the Boutalbagar market argued that it favoured the rich connected to the official STE network who could enjoy a private tap water supply in the comfort of their home. They were more likely to be able to afford water through the continuing crisis and enjoy the benefits of reduced prices. Obviously, cutting water prices or making it free cannot succeed if end-users don’t have access to it anyway. Public authorities would need to reckon and act upon existing pressures, botheconomic and hydraulic ones. Policies directed toward poor communities could be more effective with an emphasis on extending supplies and strengthening networks; tasks even more critical and important during a pandemic.  

*Interviewee’s name has been changed to preserve anonymity

Ismaël Maazaz is a PhD candidate at the Centre of African Studies of the University of Edinburgh. He is currently writing up his dissertation on water politics in N’Djamena, Chad. Header image: End-users collecting water from a hanpump in Paris Congo neighbourhood, N’Djamena. Photograph by the author

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