Diamonds and water: resources are key to stay Ebola free

13/11/2015

“Two houses down from us, an entire family died from Ebola. We could not wash to protect ourselves, so what could we do?” says Fanta Kuyateh.

Fanta used to walk 5km just to get dirty water. “We had a well next to our house, but it never worked. We tried everything, but nothing came out,” she says. “The well only needed a new tap, but no one knew what was wrong.” This is a common problem; more than 30% of water points in Sierra Leone do not work.

It has been two years on since the first case of Ebola, and Sierra Leone remains a country of contradictions: rich in gold and diamonds, but amongst the poorest in the world. Flooding is common, but people struggle to find enough to drink; and from above, ministries perch on mountain tops trying to serve their citizens below, but governance remains notoriously weak.

Sierra Leone: a country of potential

So how does a country with so much potential, have so little to show for it? Take water as an example: when it rains, it pours. Sierra Leone’s potential water supply is vast, but people are thirsty. The problem is simple: a lack of effective management. During the rainy season, crops are flooded and ruined; during the dry season, people have no water to drink.

Ishamil is changing this. When he arrives in Freetown, crowds flock around his car. Children tug at his shorts and women wave from their cassava stalls. Ishamil works for the Ministry of Water Resources and helped fix a water point near Fanta’s house. “We trained an engineer in the community and introduced a tariff system so the repair work is covered,” he says.

But Ishamil is not just working on short-term fixes. “During the war, our infrastructure and water management systems were completely destroyed. After the conflict, people expected rapid development. Lots of wells and boreholes were quickly built, but most of them only lasted a few months – instead, we needed monitoring and management.”

After checking the water point, Ishamil leaves Fanta. Soaked in mud, his tyres sink into the ground. It continues to rain. “Look at all this. How can people be thirsty? We have so many resources – diamonds, gold, iron – we should be rich. We have failed this generation, but we can help the next. If we can’t even manage water, what chance do we have?” His disappointment is a statement for all those in Freetown.

Ebola Can Stop With You

As Ishamil drives along Freetown’s only cement road – built by the Chinese – in the rain, painted signs melt into walls. One reads: “Ebola can stop with you”. Heavy mist bleaches the sky, beaten cars swerve haphazardly down muddy, dark yellow roads, and drenched market traders try to shelter their wares under thin plastic sheets. It is busyness uncharacteristic for a sleepy capital city, where small houses are sewn into green hills like a picturesque patchwork. The drive is like something out of a film, almost apocalyptic.

In the darkness are marching school kids, excited to return to school. The first week of playing at home was fun, but they’re probably bored now, at least schools are now open after a nine month hiatus. Things are slowly getting back to normal.

Re-establishing control

“Now we are re-establishing control over our own resources: teaching school children how to measure rainfall levels, ensuring water points have monitoring equipment and implementing a tariff system so our work is sustainable.

“It is working; a mining company said it only used 7% of a town’s water supply, but because we had monitored the area we found out it was 40%. The company paid accordingly and we used to money to reinvest in public services. This is what we really need – not poorly-managed infrastructure that is left to fall into decay,” says Ishamil.

Ishamil’s hard work is slowly being recognised. “Our government is now helping this community. Before, we didn’t see them. But now we know they are doing their job. We pay for our own maintenance and we know where our water is going,” says Fanta.
Ishamil drives back home to his wife. “Forget contradiction. We are good people; passionate people. This is our time to show the world what we can do.”

The Department for International Development and Adam Smith International are supporting Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Water Resources. Over 30,000 water points have been mapped and assessed. Since the project began, the Ministry has increased revenues by more than 150%. Over two million people now have access to clean water.