Coumba D. Sow: “My mission is to make sure the people here have water”

Coordinated by Senegalese agro economist Coumba D. Sow, the “1 million Sahel cisterns” program is an initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which consists of establishing systems to capture rainwater. This can ensure a better quality of life for communities experiencing long periods of drought.

Coumba D. Sow

Coumba is the FAO resilience team coordinator for the West Africa and Sahel regions, which spans 18 countries. Its main challenge right now is to adapt to the African reality the program initially created in Brazil

From her Dakar office, she talked to the ATLANTICO team about this challenge. According to her, program pilots have already been made in Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso. New experiments are being conducted in Chad, Mali and The Gambia. But this is just the beginning. “Obviously, the Sahel needs more than 1 million cisterns,” she said.

Coumba D. Sow com ex-diretor geral da FAO, o brasileiro José Graziano. Imagem: FAO
Coumba D. Sow talking to former FAO Director-General, Brazilian Jose Graziano. Image: FAO

Coumba Sow works in FAO since 2006, when she joined as Agricultural Policy Officer, supporting analysis and development of agricultural and food security policies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. She also supported the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and contributed to the development of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme Compact and National and Regional Agriculture Investments Plans across the continent.  In 2013, she joined the Cabinet of FAO Director-General Responsible for Africa related issues and covering the portfolio of Technical Cooperation and Economic and Social Development. Since February 2017, Coumba has been the FAO Regional Coordinator for Resilience for West Africa and the Sahel, covering 18 countries. She launched the initiative “1 million cisterns for the Sahel” inspired by the Brazilian Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program. Coumba earned a Master’s degree from the School of Food Industries of Montpellier, and a post-graduate degree in agricultural economics from the University of London.

Village in Ndiama Peulh, Senegal, April 2019. Image: Eduardo Soteras Jalil / FAO.

How did the idea of taking the Brazilian program to Senegal come about?

The idea came up in November 2013, during an event that discussed the issue of water in the Sahel region. At the time, the president of Senegal said that millions of cubic millimeters of water were going to the sea. So I moved to Senegal, to the sub-regional office of West Africa in the Sahel. And my job was to lead the resilience team. My mission is to make sure the people here have water. There is enough rain. But after the rain passes, families run out of water. Some women walk 10km to find water and another 10 km to return. Mostly when they go, they go with the children. So the children, don’t go to school because they have to help their mothers.  I visited many countries in the Sahel: Niger, Mali, Chad, Senegal, Gambia. It was the same problem everywhere. So I recall a suggestion from Mr. Graziano.  I went to Brazil, looked at the cisterns they had. I talked to them, asked many questions and developed the concept of 1 million cisterns for the Sahel. Of course, the Sahel needs more than 1 million cisterns. But the idea was to keep the name to make reference to the Brazilian program, just to create the linked between Africa and Brazil.

Women beneficiary of the “1 Million Cisterns” program in a cistern in Douly, Senegal. Image: Eduardo Soteras Jalil / FAO

How many people are benefiting? 

It’s the pilot phase. In this first phase, we build 19 cisterns for around 360 women. We build small cisterns for between 15 and 20 cubic meters for a family of five people. They can use water during the dry season, grow vegetables and sell them to the market if they have some suppliers. We also built 50 cubic meter cisterns to be used by associations of about 50 to 60 women together.  They have some land they use together and they could use vegetables to sell at the market during the dry season. In the normal season, they grow cereals. That was last year. We saw that the pilot project is good. So we brought ASA people coming to Senegal to walk with us. If the pilot is good we say “ok, let’s then move to scale up”. We stared the scale-up in 2019 when then we reach 20.000 women (in Senegal, Niger, and Burkina Faso. And we stared more pilots, but very small, in Chad, in Mali and Gambia. 

How is the acceptance of the project?

So for the time being people are very enthusiastic about the project. They really want to see this grow, they want to see this become a very big project, an initiative in Africa.

Let’s talk about the adaptation of the project to the reality of the Sahel. What is in common with the Brazilian project and what is the difference between the two realities?

Farmers from the northeast of Brazil, in the past, many years ago, had a similar problem to the Sahel. They had difficulties to find water. Millions of animals were dying because they didn’t have water. This is one of the biggest similarities.  The second similarity is that in West África, in the Sahel, you have almost 80% of people who live in the rural area, that are the farmers. And this is also the case in Brazil. Another good similarity was the fact that I think in Brazil women were also in charge of foraging water. In the Sahel, in general, are women who go to find water. Another similarity that I saw: all the communities, they had in their tradition to collect water.  In the Sahel, they use to do it with very small quantities. Never they thought of these very very big cisterns, that could collect a lot of water.

Cistern plate in Douly village, Senegal. Image: Eduardo Soteras Jalil / FAO

And about the differences? What are they?

The difference is even you can collect more water in Brazil that in the Sahel. The average of millimeters, cubic meters of water, that drops in Brazil, is more than in the Sahel.  So this was a bit challenging for us. Another difference is maybe the organization of the civil society in Brazil, they were already very much involved in the implantation of the Fome Zero. You can see that civil society,  through ASA, take the lead. In West Africa, we had to find the structure and institutions we can work with to develop the same approach.  In Brazil the Cisterns Program comes within another program, that is in the Fome Zero. It is not an initiative alone. And this here doesn’t exist.  One another thing. In Brazil, the house of the farmers has a roof done with metal. In the Sahel, the roof is done with straw. And, to collect the water you need something hard. So we build a very big shed.

Vegetable cultivation in a community of Senegal. Image: Eduardo Soteras Jalil / FAO

What positive results can be seen in the region and what are the next steps? 

Senegal adopted something like the “Bolsa Família” program [Social welfare program of the Government of Brazil]. So we went to select beneficiaries women from this program.  We provide them with cisterns and training. We gave them cash to relatives and friends work in the building of the cisterns.  We are hoping that we would create the same condition of Fome Zero, create the same environment for the beneficiaries. Six months only after, we could see a big difference. Their life changed. Some women were growing vegetables for the first time, they were growing salads. They were growing cucumbers, they were growing carrots, you know, any type of tomatoes, and so on. And they were using to cook. So the nutrition, even if the family changed. Children were eating for the first time vegetables. They didn’t even know those vegetables exist.  Another thing it changed is the fact that children don’t go to find water anymore. They can all study, they can spend time with their mother, they help their mother in the gardening, to grow more things and so on. The women themselves don’t have any more to bother to walk kilometers. They can provide for their families, they can care for themselves, and so on.

In collaboration with Emanuel de Macêdo