An urgent search for water in Mozambique

April 22, 2015 | Feature | Volume 19 Issue 9
Julie Bell, Mennonite Central Committee
<p>Doga Jose washes clothes with water drawn from the well drilled in 2014 in Ndoro, Caia District.&nbsp;(Photo: Matthew Sawatzky, for Mennonite Central Committee)</p>

Six men grasp the long metal handle of the drill and walk slowly in a circle. They lean into the task, using body weight to drive the shaft of the drill into the dry soil of Mozambique’s Caia District.

They have hand-drilled some five metres down and have farther to go, possibly four metres or more. Even then, there’s no guarantee the water will be potable. An attempt at a nearby location was abandoned after three days of drilling when workers found water too salty to be used.

Community members in Ndoro in Caia District draw water from a well drilled in 2014. Capped wells with pumps provide a protected source of water for drinking, washing dishes and clothes, and bathing.

Across Mozambique, the search for clean and reliable water is urgent and constant.

In some locations, people risk illness by drinking from contaminated sources. In other areas, months of drought leave communities unable to sustain gardens and livestock.

“We’re trying to move away from just responding to these emergencies,” says Jana Meyer, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) representative in Mozambique. “We are finding ways to prevent them or make the situation more tolerable.”

Through its partnership with the Christian Council of Mozambique, an organization representing up to 24 Christian churches across Mozambique, MCC is investing in water projects in dozens of communities, from drilling and maintaining wells to harvesting water from sand.

Henriques Cubonera Mbondo admits that when he first heard about the plan for a sand dam in his village of Maule Maule in Tete Province, he was perplexed. “I thought water from sand, how can that be?” he says. “But now I know it’s possible, and we have lots of water. You can see my garden. We have kale, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage.”

A sand dam is essentially a way to store water. A concrete wall is built across a dry riverbed. During the rainy season, the wall slows the flow of the river and water infuses the coarse sand that builds up behind the wall. The sand accumulates over time, and water can be extracted by digging into the sand during the dry season.

MCC and the Christian council, with support from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, have supported the building of sand dams in Mozambique’s Changara District since 2008. Community members dig the foundation, collect rocks and do other physical tasks. When water is available, community members are given seeds and trained in conservation agriculture methods. MCC provides construction materials and seeds, and supports the salaries of some council staff. The Foodgrains Bank provides a grant.

“This district has a great challenge with food security,” says Tiago Vilanculo, who oversees the council’s work in Changara. “The rain falls maybe three months a year. Temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius and there’s a large livestock population. These communities need water.”

The sand dam in Maule Maule was built in 2013. Tino Gento was born in the village 45 years ago, but this is her first garden. She will use a large tomato she’s just picked to make a sauce for chima—a porridge of ground maize, sorghum or millet—for her husband and eight children.

She laughs as she points to her stomach. “We are eating a lot more vegetables now. You can see that our bellies are full, “she says. “We had kids who were not healthy, but now they are.”

For Mbondo, who has more vegetables than his family of seven can eat, the garden is also a source of income. “Now I don’t have to go into the bush and find firewood to sell,” he says. “I can sell vegetables to buy oil and have my maize ground into flour, maybe buy some goats. I feel secure.”

In Caia District in central Mozambique, the challenge is finding potable water free from contaminants, salt or other hazards.

Nfumo Arvelino Bonjesse Ntanda is 60 years old and a community leader in the village of Ndoro. Until a few years ago, his village got water from the Zangue River.

“At the river we got attacked by crocodiles,” he says. “As many as 16 people lost their lives.”

The wells, some as deep at 10 metres, have concrete coverings at ground to protect against contamination and a hand pump is used to draw water. The Christian council works with communities to train people to maintain the well and make simple repairs. A committee elected by the community oversees maintenance of the pump, cleanliness around the well and collection of a small fee from each household that uses the well.

“We were crying out for this well,” says Bernard Lapissone, president of Ndoro’s well management committee. “Now, there’s not as much sickness and our children can go to school clean.”

These efforts are changing the lives of thousands. Each well provides water for 500 people, sometimes more if wells in nearby communities aren’t functioning. Between 2004 and 2014, 69 wells were constructed through MCC’s partnership with the council. Forty-two sand dams, built with the support of MCC and the Foodgrains Bank since 2008, provide water to other communities, serving more than 12,000 people.

For Meyer, this is not only providing water but also building peace, a key part of MCC’s mission. “I think of the passage in Isaiah 32, where peace is described as a place where you can have your animals and a place to live and a place to cultivate,” she says. “This is how I see these projects.”

Doga Jose washes clothes with water drawn from the well drilled in 2014 in Ndoro, Caia District. (Photo: Matthew Sawatzky, for Mennonite Central Committee)

Patches of green dot the landscape surrounding the sand dam at Matambo. The dam supplies families with fresh water for irrigation, for washing and for animals. (Photo: Matthew Sawatzky, for Mennonite Central Committee)

Lydia Pensar of Mozambique waters her garden by flinging water from a jug. Sand dams result in not only water, but also food. Built in 2013, the dam supplies 54 families with fresh water for irrigation and other uses. (Photo: Matthew Sawatzky, for Mennonite Central Committee)

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I have known about the good works the Mennonites have done for decades. I spent 20+ years as a Quaker and never felt the Quakers, as a faith community. I get or got the Canadian Mennonite Magazine and noted with interest the efforts in Mozambique to help build dams across wadi, or perhaps arroyos, where large summer rains send down large amounts of water. Much is just wasted. And, the people had no clean drinking water. Sickness. And people who went to a nearby river were eaten by crocodiles. 16 in one year, I think.

The Mennonites helped build concrete dams across many of these wadi. The sand that accumulated behind these dams then built up to a certain height over time.

As it did so, the water was "caught" enough that it began to seep into the sand.
Once the sand reached a certain height, the people were shown how to drill down into the sand with hand drills. Many were needed to turn the drills, and then pipes were installed so that clean water could be gotten for a time from each of these 'reservoirs', which the sand (because it was a certain height), cleaned.

In Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico, I've heard that Menonitas, who already have rich colonias near by in Janos, along the border, are trying to get water rights from aquifers in or near Palomas. I don't get why Mennonites in Mexico can't take a page from the good work being done in Mozambique, and show the people of Palomas, and surrounding areas, where water purity can also be an issue, to seek Mexican government help, as well as a group of Mennonites, to work together to do these type public works. The people of Palomas may simply not have the financial resources, and political connections, to pull something like this off.

Maybe it has been proposed. I would like to know if so. If not, do Mennonites talk to each other?

I've been to a colonia of Menonitas south of Janos, Chihuahua, Mexico and seen, with my own eyes, the incredible corn crops grown. I came from northern Indiana and lived in Ohio and was very familiar with the incredibly rich and productive farms of Mennonites, Amish, and Dunkers throughout a swath of these states. Water was not an issue in those states.

I could not believe the similarity of corn crops (and cheese, milk, butter) produced by the Menonitas of near Janos. This seems inequitable. I'm sure if a few people in Palomas and surrounding areas could be recruited, efforts could be made to build some of these dams and begin capturing water. It is also possible that rain water harvesting for agricultural use could be demonstrated. Perhaps some kind of filters could be installed to use that water for agricultural use.

At any rate, as things get worse worldwide with water, it seems that people in Palomas may need every bit of their own aquifer vs. Menonitas who have insular community resources. It is known that Menonitas in Mexico have exhausted aquifers, then moved on. The violence from cartelista violence undoubtedly has contributed to the problem, but if Menonitas are migrating, can not some "teams" stay behind long enough to show people in Palomas, for instance, how to make these dams and strive for cleaner water?

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