In Mayotte, “it’s a bit of a war to have access to drinking water”

The 101st French department has been facing increasing tensions for several months due to water restrictions affecting the population. The cuts intensified at the beginning of September, and so did the anger of the Mahorese population. The failures of the infrastructure on site and the lack of investment are particularly singled out.

“No French department in France would accept a quarter of half of what the Mahorais experience.” The words are from Yves Jégo, former Secretary of State for Overseas Territories (2008-2009), to describe the “inexcusable and inconceivable” situation that Mayotte has been experiencing for several months now.

The 101st French department is, in fact, faced with an unprecedented water crisis due to poor rains and an episode of drought – the most violent the island has experienced since 1997. This situation has led the prefecture of Mayotte to put in place, since March, restrictions: temporary cuts in water distribution, “water towers” between municipalities, etc.

But this was not enough, and the authorities took even more drastic measures at the end of August. Consequence: the Mahorais have only had tap water two days out of three on average since September 4, with hourly variations depending on where they live in the department.

“It all depends on where you live on the island and what network you are connected to,” explains Andrea, who has been living in Mayotte for a year. “In the best case scenario we have a little water every day, and in the worst case scenario we have no running water… and if it ever comes out of the tap, it is undrinkable. That’s it the current situation, and it’s only getting worse.”

Andrea considers himself “privileged” because he manages to have water at home – he lives in an area where it is cut off five times a week from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., with an additional 36-hour cut off on weekends. . Other people who live five minutes from his home “haven’t had water for two weeks,” he adds. “They therefore have to go and get supplies from neighbors who have set up tanks.”

Same story for Damien*. “I have always experienced small-scale water cuts and restrictions from time to time since I lived in Mayotte,” explains the man who arrived in the department three years ago. But this time, the situation is more tense than what he has experienced in the past: “There is a shortage of water on the island. For my family and I, I still have 60 liters of water stored in my bathroom for natural needs, for showering and for drinking.”

With tap water, “we started to have stomach aches”

And when water is available at the tap after yet another cut, “it is brown and unfit for consumption”, as the LIOT MP for the 1st constituency of Mayotte, Estelle Youssouffa, explained to RFI on September 13.

The Mayotte Regional Health Agency assures, for its part, that “the water available on the network is drinkable and can be consumed without systematic boiling”… while advising the island’s inhabitants to boil water. water for drinking, cooking or brushing your teeth for up to 12 hours after a 24-hour outage.

The quality of the water already has health consequences: “many people” complain of stomach aches and sales of anti-diarrheals have increased in recent weeks in Mayotte, according to the Overseas website La 1ère.

“Before, I filtered and drank tap water, it was fine,” explains Damien. “Now it’s been two months since we stopped drinking it because we were starting to have stomach aches.” Suspecting that the water was undrinkable, Damien stopped drinking running water as a precaution. “I have two young children, I don’t want to take any risks with (their health),” he adds.

He and his family now only consume bottled water. Damien explains that he has “never stocked as many water packs” in his life as he has in recent weeks. He also considers himself “lucky” to have enough purchasing power to afford it. Currently, you often have to pay between 4 and 5 euros – sometimes up to 12 euros – to obtain six liters of water from a brand costing less than 2 euros in mainland France.

Prohibitive prices – despite a price freeze decided by the Mayotte prefecture in July – for a large part of the islanders: the island is, in fact, the poorest department in France. Some 42% of the population even lived on less than 160 euros per month in 2018, according to INSEE.

“It’s a bit of a war to have access to drinking water: packs of water in stores are overpriced, rare and taken by storm as soon as certain stores are delivered. This leads to almost criminal speculation because the sellers play on the fact that people are forced to buy water,” explains Andrea.

Failing infrastructure and suspicions of corruption

This water stress only increases tensions in the population: in addition to the numerous indignant publications on social networks under the slogan “Mayotte is thirsty”, Mahorais demonstrated in front of the prefecture on September 9, chanting in particular: “What do we want ? Of drinking water”.

Demonstrators regret that “nothing has been done” in recent years in Mayotte to resolve the water crisis – the roots of which are deep, as explained by Fahad Idaroussi Tsimanda, doctor of geography and associate researcher at Lagam (Laboratory of geography and planning of Montpellier): “The current situation is catastrophic, yet we saw the water problem coming – there was already one in Mayotte in 1997 – but we allowed it to persist”.

According to this Mayotte specialist, the current crisis has its source in the island’s failing infrastructure in terms of water treatment, on the one hand, and in climate change which is making rain scarce on Mayotte, on the other hand.

“Between 2010 and 2020, there was less rainfall in Mayotte when it was usually abundant during the rainy season. Now, the rivers are dry and we sometimes have to wait until January – before that. was rather in October – for the rain to fall,” notes Fahad Idaroussi Tsimanda.

The island’s supply depends essentially on rainwater to fill the two hill reservoirs of Mayotte – Combani and Dzoumogné. But because of the unprecedented drought, their filling rate was 25% and 14% on August 24, compared to 106% and 82% on the same date in 2022, according to official data. A third hill reservoir located in Ourovéni should have seen the light of day in the 2000s… but the project over which “a scent of ‘corruption'” hovers has still not been completed in 2023.

Added to this is a desalination plant which “does not produce the expected quantities of water” (2,000 m3 per day, compared to 5,300 m3 expected), as recognized by the State in 2022. The latter hopes to restore the maximum capacity planned by the end of this year. Another plant of the same type should also normally see the light of day in August 2024, with the aim of producing at least 10,000 m3 of water per day.

“We must also take into account that there have been leaks on the water network in Mayotte for several years,” adds Fahad Idaroussi Tsimanda. The management of the network, subject to controversy on the island, is highlighted in a report from the Regional Chamber of Accounts in 2020. The National Financial Prosecutor’s Office also conducted an investigation into the Mayotte water union, detaining several heads of charges including “favoritism”, “embezzlement of public funds” and even “corruption”.

Finally, if Mayotte does not have enough water for its population, it is also because the latter has been in constant demographic growth for a decade: the island had 310,000 inhabitants in 2022 compared to 224,000 in 2014, according to a INSEE estimate.

The water crisis in Mayotte “could create even more tensions”

To deal with this water crisis, the French executive announced, on September 4, the upcoming distribution of two free bottles of water per day and per person to the most “vulnerable” – some 30,000 people, according to the Minister Delegate for Overseas Territories, Philippe Vigier. Fifteen tanks and 200 water ramps must also be deployed throughout Mayotte.

“The State is responding to an emergency situation, now we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” hopes Andrea. He does not see the horizon clearing up in the short term for Mayotte. “For the moment, the best thing is to continue with emergency measures.” He also wants the price of water packs to be “regulated”, while waiting for the rains in November which he hopes will be “abundant”.

Damien could, for his part, shelter his wife and children if the situation does not improve in the coming weeks. “There is already a security problem in Mayotte and the water could create even more tensions. I want my family to stay away from all that if that happens,” he explains. He recognizes that “it’s complicated at the moment to live here without this basic need of water.”

“I don’t expect anything from the State. There have been failings in water management in Mayotte. We are masters of nothing, we have no other choice but to wait to see how the situation will evolve,” concludes Damien. And to hope for a saving rain.

* The first name has been changed


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