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Will Water Pumps Bring Peace to Ivory Coast?

April 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Part of a partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Steve Sapienza reports from the West African nation of Ivory Coast and explains how committees set up to maintain access to water are helping bring together communities divided along ethnic lines and plagued by the unrest of a civil war.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next tonight: A civil war in West Africa forces a country to look at its water problems.

Special correspondent Steve Sapienza has another of his collaborations with African journalists who are covering the continent’s water issues.

His story is from the Ivory Coast, and it was done in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The West African nation of Ivory Coast was once a beacon of prosperity for the region. But, in 2002, a civil war divided the country between north and south, and set the stage for further turmoil.

Recently, violence erupted in 2010, when incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara after a disputed presidential election.

I met journalist Selay Kouassi on the rooftop of his apartment building, the spot where he watched his country descend into chaos.

SELAY KOUASSI, journalist: I was here, standing here on my rooftop, and I could see U.N. helicopters and helicopters of French troops shooting rockets on the presidential palace. It was something nobody experienced before.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Selay continued reporting from the streets of the port city Abidjan as war engulfed the entire country, killing thousands of people and leaving nearly a million homeless.

The civil war ended when Laurent Gbagbo was captured in April of 2011. But armed militias linger and sporadic fighting still occurs to this day. In the country’s western region, intercommunal violence divided villages and destroyed some 18,000 homes.

Far from the reach of the central government, villagers in the west have been left to mend rifts on their own. I followed Selay to this still tense region, where once bitter rivals are uniting around a common need: water.

SELAY KOUASSI: Water is a very important resource. And in the village, people usually meet at the water points. It’s where people meet to share news, to just speak with others.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The conflict divided many villages along ethnic lines, which led to broken and blocked water points.

MAN (through translator): Before the war, the water pump was repaired and working and the water was here. Since the war, the population fled and everything was abandoned, and so today we still need to have access to water.

WOMAN (through translator): We were hiding in the bush and we were drinking dirty water. When we returned, some of the wells had bodies in them, and they said the water is dirty.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Before the war, one ethnic group, the Yacouba, controlled the water points of this village. Today, water is managed by several ethnic groups.

VICTORIEN TOUALY GBLA, water committee spokesman (through translator): The committee is comprised of several different ethnic groups, Yacouba, Dioula, even the Mossi. We did this because when the committee is exclusively comprised of Yacouba, the Dioula feel discriminated against. That’s why we have this arrangement, in the spirit of the reconciliation.

SELAY KOUASSI: Most of the water committees I visited were neither set up by the government nor by the international NGOs working in the area.

They started this initiative on their own. And it’s really fantastic, because maybe they learned from the crisis and its negative impact on their own lives and neighborhood.

STEVE SAPIENZA: In Teapleu, where the war began, the water committees are taking root. But the village chief tells Selay more needs to be done to repair broken hand pumps and to cover exposed wells.

BAGUI PLEIZAN DENIS, chief of Teapleu (through translator): This what we are using. We’re drawing water from here. If you drink water from here, it is hazardous. It’s like this all around the region. Because of a lack of means, all the wells are open wells without covers.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The water committees here receive no help from the Ivorian state. And the government representative in Teapleu, N’Cho David, is skeptical water will unite divided villages.

N’CHO DAVID, Sub-prefect of Teapleu (through translator): To expect that water will be a tool through which reconciliation will occur is going too fast.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The government has been slow to embrace village water committees. But international aid groups are supporting them, says Benjamin Doua of Save the Children.

BENJAMIN DOUA, Save the Children (through translator): From our perspective, we want to organize the different communities around the water issue for peace.

STEVE SAPIENZA: But Teapleu official David prefers that aid groups make fixing broken water pumps a priority.

N’CHO DAVID (through translator): I want Save the Children to repair all the pumps if possible to ease the suffering of the people.

STEVE SAPIENZA: As the government waits for outside help, the village chief worries the exposed wells may lead to renewed violence.

BAGUI PLEIZAN DENIS (through translator): Recently, a group of people were coming to pour poison into the wells, and we were being vigilant. So two of my young brothers handed them over to local authorities. Otherwise, Teapleu would have another conflict.

SELAY KOUASSI: In terms of reconciliation and peace, water committees in the villages are a step forward. What they have already down in terms of reconciliation is great. And they just need support now, to be backed by the government, to go ahead and give peace a chance.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The government has formed a truth and reconciliation commission to heal the country’s deep divisions. Villagers say national reconciliation programs haven’t reached them yet, but they know where reconciliation will start here: at the village water point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can learn more about why much of West Africa struggles to get access to safe drinking water. There’s a link to the Pulitzer Center’s stories on our website.