One million cisterns for the Sahel

One million cisterns for the Sahel


End of April, early morning departure from Dakar with colleagues from FAO and some journalists, to meet with some beneficiaries of the initiative called “1 million cisterns for the Sahel”.

In short, the initiative focuses on putting in place rainwater retention systems in the Sahel where access to water is a challenge: rainfall here is increasingly irregular, accentuating periods of drought in contrast with floods; wells, when they exist, are often far from those who have to use them; and water is expensive. Without water, food security is not possible.

How does it work? The system itself is quite simple. A shed with a zinc roof collects rainwater in a drain connected with two pipes. One of these discharges dirty water from the first rains cleaning the roof of the shed. This water cannot be used for consumption, but is perfectly suitable for irrigation. Once the roof of the shed is clean, the first pipe is closed, while the second is opened and pours rainwater into the cistern and this can be used for consumption.

This system is based on an initiative implemented in Brazil, in semi-arid areas similar to the Sahel region. Some will define this innovative approach as integrated and others as resilient.

After a good three-hour drive, we arrive in the rural community of Thiamène Pass, located in northwestern Senegal, and more precisely, in the village of Douli.

There are about 20 women, all extremely elegant, wearing colourful dresses, their children and grandchildren, and some men. It is hot, very hot – we are in the Sahel. Everyone is patient under the shed with the zinc roof that is an integral part of the system. We start to ask our questions, sitting under the shed – the only shadow area around us, making it a place to socialize.

Ms Mboya Ka, mother of five, who manages the Douli family cistern, explains how her life was before it was established. “I had to walk almost 9 km every day to buy water, often with one or more of my grandchildren and I spent more than XOF 1 000 (just to give an idea of what this represents: in Senegal, the average salary in 2019 is estimated at XOF 92 000). Like me, other women, sometimes pregnant, had to travel the same distances”.

“Now, with the time and strength saved – fetching water was a real chore – I can do other things, like cultivating my garden and meeting with other women. I also learned how to plant some of the seeds I received, and I now know how to use the vegetables I produce”.

The cistern mentioned by Mboya is a 15-m3 tank that can supply much of the drinking water needs of her family, or ten people, during the dry season, as well as develop small vegetable gardens.

Market gardening development and women’s empowerment

Ms Nene Ka, mother of three children, who also owns a cistern, adds to what Mboya told us, saying that thanks to the water accumulated in the cisterns they were able to create small vegetable gardens as well, where they grow cabbage, eggplant, okra, sorrel and tomatoes.

Before the cisterns, she says, “we did not engage in agricultural activities and we did not have irrigation water, so we went to the market 12 km from here once a week and bought what we could. Today, we have vegetable gardens and we are several women cultivating small plots”.

The third woman we meet – whom we have nicknamed “madam salad” (which she boasts of throughout our visit) – finish our discussion with a lot of enthusiasm by explaining that she has now become a vegetarian. Her dinner consists of rice with a tomato sauce and salad together with other greens such as sorrel or moringa. She even says that with this new diet, she is feeling much better – her liver no longer causes discomfort. 

The three women with whom we spoke explain that with the time and strength saved, as they don’t have to travel long distances in the over 45-degree heat, they can devote themselves to other activities. They all took part in the training on water management and market gardening techniques. They also tell us that they have time to meet and discuss certain topics. An informal organization seems to have been set up.

New jobs for young people

Before the cisterns were installed, the young men from the village with whom we had the opportunity to talk to had no jobs. One of the objectives of the “1 million cisterns for the Sahel” initiative is precisely to promote the creation of new jobs for youth. Volunteers in the village were recruited and trained, following identification by the local NGO implementing project activities.

With the training on small construction they received, they’ve been able to not only build the cisterns for their villages but also to apply the knowledge gained in other areas. They also tell us that as soon as the scale up will be done, they stand ready to work on the construction sites of the new cisterns, as specialized workers.