José Hounsa: on lake Nokoué in Benin, "the population has seen its common good, which it had reclaimed, be taken away"

José Hounsa: on lake Nokoué in Benin,

Interview with José Hounsa, in charge of monitoring the operation of water and sanitation facilities for the “Solidarity for water on Nokoué project” in Benin.

Can you tell us about the background of the “Solidarity for water on Nokoué project” in Benin?

Nearly 90,000 people live on Lake Nokoué in the south of Benin, in extreme poverty, with fishing as their livelihood. Paradoxically, although the inhabitants live in stilt houses on the water all year round, only 10% used to have access to drinking water and 2% to sanitation.

The high population growth gradually led to the water in the lake becoming unsanitary and therefore unfit for consumption, with defecation in the lake water, and dumping of animal carcasses and rubbish in the lake. It gradually became an enormous open-air rubbish dump. The lake is connected to the sea and has a particularly high level of salinisation in places.

A few drinking water points existed in the early 2000s, but forced a large part of the population (mostly women and children) to travel 10 km to 15 km by canoe several times a week to obtain water. Consumption from the lake remained therefore a real alternative, since 17% of households used it exclusively; others (more than 25%) used water of dubious quality, from nearby swamps or rivers.

Consequences of the increase in insalubrity included a deteriorated general state of health with daily health risks for the population (cholera, typhoid fever, malaria, dysentery, etc). Other notable impacts include disruption of children’s schooling, children drowning in search of water, and the discouragement of health workers working in the area.

Faced with this situation, the population of the lake found Emmaus through a local fisherfolk association, in 2006.

What does the “Solidarity for water on Nokoué project” consist of?

Emmaus International began supporting the project in 2006, and the stakeholders’ involvement gradually took shape and became organised.

The project consisted of providing drinking water for the entire lake town of Sô-Ava. Firstly, by building water works: the creation of 9 water towers, pumping stations, and 103 standpipes serving over 80% of the population. Drinking water was sold by water suppliers at a very low price.

In addition, a vast sanitation programme was implemented, with the construction of 85 sanitary blocks. The population has been educated on how to use and maintain these facilities.

The third component is hygiene promotion, with support from women’s groups involved in environmental hygiene, through cleanliness campaigns. All of this is aimed at improving the living conditions of the local population.

What conclusions can be drawn from this project, more than 15 years after its launch?

By working with the local Emmaus Pahou group, the lake’s fisherfolk association and the local authorities, Emmaus International has succeeded in involving and supporting the population of Lake Nokoué for over 15 years, so that they are able to manage a sustainable and participatory project for access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. After many meetings and years of preparation, EI has built a complete village water supply infrastructure for over 90,000 inhabitants. Emmaus then entrusted them with the operation and management of the project.

A key factor in the success of the project and the sustainable management of the facilities is that the population was involved at every stage and in every decision. The infrastructures are managed collectively by citizens, via the Users’ Association that was created. The population therefore manages this public service thanks to participatory governance, the initial methods of which are still in place. Each district and each village chooses its representatives for meetings that are held fortnightly; a steering committee overseen by the population validates works, investments, income and expenditure, water pricing, etc. Water is thus a common good and the whole community has a stake in maintaining its accessibility and quality. This understanding is anchored in people’s minds, even though this model remains a daily challenge, especially due to the direct opposition of other private water stakeholders on the lake. Other positive consequences have become apparent on the lake in terms of children’s schooling and health.

The water project therefore goes beyond the framework of access to water and sanitation: more broadly speaking, it addresses the issue of the power of local people to influence their access to drinking water and sanitation services. Based on this experience, the Emmaus movement has established itself as a firm advocate for the collective management of common goods.

What are the issues and challenges today in terms of access to water in Lake Nokoué?

For several months now, all those involved in the Solidarity for water on Nokoué project have been extremely concerned. The citizens’ management, delegated by the Sô-Ava town hall, has been shifted due to a major change in national policy in Benin. Since his re-election as president, Patrice Talon has launched major national reforms, one of which concerns access to drinking water throughout Benin, particularly in rural areas.

It consists of developing infrastructures where they are needed, and integrating existing infrastructures into the public domain. Although the Beninese state is finally taking over the management of this fundamental right, the method applied calls into question the full involvement of local populations. Indeed, town councils, whose resources remain very limited and who are responsible for water management, have been strongly encouraged to delegate this responsibility to private operators (in the form of leasing). Since December 2022, a Tunisian operator has been managing the infrastructure on Lake Nokoué.

It is therefore without any consultation that the population of Sô-Ava has seen its common good, which it had reclaimed, be taken away. The consequences are already being felt: the price of water has risen by 50% (the price per m3 of water has risen from 405 CFA francs to 605 CFA francs), water analyses are no longer carried out, defective equipment on the infrastructure is no longer replaced (damaged taps, broken pipes, etc.), and the company’s staff are rarely seen on site.

It is clear that for several decades, water has been facing increasingly dire processes of commodification. Such privatisation leads to social exclusion in particular. In order to prevent fundamental rights from being violated, it is crucial to move away from the totemic ideology of privatisation. In order to guarantee fair access to water, as well as to food, housing, health care and education, these common goods must be protected from the market. Emmaus International calls for stronger water governance, because this vital resource is a common good that must be managed in a democratic and sustainable way. Civil society must always be involved and heard because water is everyone’s business!