Harvesting Rainwater During Monsoon Season Is Saving Lives in Cameroon

Cases of cholera jump from 50 per week to more than 400 per week during monsoon season because of contaminated drinking water.
A girl waits in line for water in northern Cameroon. (Photo: Bate Felix Tabi Tabe/Reuters)
Nov 24, 2015· 1 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

A new rainwater harvesting program in the flood-plagued city of Douala, Cameroon, hopes to curb the spread of diseases such as cholera and malaria, which rise when floodwater contaminates groundwater and leaves large areas of standing water. The program, part of a $185 million effort by the government to repair and rehabilitate roads and drainage systems, comes after a devastating flood in June, caused by a week of monsoon rains, wreaked havoc on the city and displaced 2,000 people.

“Natural disasters have gotten our authorities to think about saving water and saving the health of their citizens,” Jackson Abwe, a resident of one of the neighborhoods involved in the project, told Reuters.

Because 60 percent of Douala’s population gets water from wells, many of which are in poor neighborhoods built next to open latrines, raw sewage gets washed into the water supply when it floods. As a result, finding safe, potable water can be difficult.

Ngide Isaac, a doctor at Douala Laquintinie Hospital, told Reuters that cholera cases jump from 50 per week to more than 400 per week during the monsoon season.

“Both the urban poor, who cannot afford portable water, and the well-to-do, who suffer from persistent [water supply] cuts, rely on the groundwater supply, which is vulnerable to contamination,” he said.

The rain harvesting program is designed to keep cholera cases down with a simple goal: Collect and store clean rainwater for use when flooding contaminates groundwater.

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The first phase of the project will target 15 squatter settlements in Douala, low-lying areas where the city’s urban poor live and that are particularly vulnerable to flooding. Tanks will be installed under the roofs of houses to collect rainwater, which will then be treated, stored in a larger collection tank, and run through a plumbing system and into homes in the area.

If the project is a success, city officials hope the use of rainwater harvesting systems will become widespread.

“Ideally, each public and private building in Douala city should possess its own water harvesting system,” declared now Mayor Gustave Ebanda when the project was announced.

Environment experts say that rainwater harvesting on a larger scale can not only provide much needed potable water in times of disaster but can also reduce the need for expensive water-supply systems, provide water to areas without access to wells, and reduce flood damage.

For most people, however, it’s about having access to clean water when disaster strikes.

“Women and children sometimes spend up to eight hours per day searching for portable water,” said Marie Noel Ebang, an attendant at a shop using a rainwater harvesting system. “This rainwater storage device has improved access to safe drinking water and decreased the time needed for water collection.”