Accessing drinking water ‘a battle’ in French overseas territory Mayotte

Accessing drinking water ‘a battle’ in French overseas territory Mayotte

In response to the most severe drought Mayotte has experienced in decades, the French government and local authorities in the overseas territory are taking drastic measures to ensure inhabitants get basic access to water. The unprecedented shortage is pushing locals into desperation and mounting tensions at a time when Mayotte is also seeing rampant crime.

Getting access to tap water in Mayotte, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean northwest of Madagascar, has become an uphill battle. Since September 4, residents have only had access to the archipelago’s water supply for two days out of three on average.  

Mayotte is facing the worst drought it has seen since the late 1990s. To cope, local authorities have taken measures over the past six months to preserve what little water is left. 

The latest water cuts, varying in intensity from town to town, have been the most drastic so far. 

“It all depends on where you live and which water system you’re dependent on,” says Andrea, who has lived in Mayotte for a year. “On good days, we have a little bit of water every day. On bad days, we don’t have any running water … and if it comes out of the tap, it’s undrinkable. That’s the current situation, and things are only getting worse.”    

By the end of the rainy season in April, Mayotte’s primary reservoirs were less than half full. Around the same time last year, they were filled to around 98 percent. Since then, the seasonal showers that typically replenish the island’s water reservoirs during the dry period from May through November have been meagre. 

“No other department in mainland France would accept even a fraction of what people in Mayotte are going through,” said former secretary of state for overseas territories Yves Jégo, who described the situation in the archipelago as “inexcusable and inconceivable”.  

But Mayotte resident Andrea considers himself “privileged”, since he is able to access water at home. He lives in an area where water cuts take place five times a week, from 4pm to 8am, with an additional 36-hour cut at the weekend. Others who live five minutes away from him “haven’t had water for a fortnight”, he says. “They have to go and get it from neighbours, who have set up water tanks.”  

Damien* agrees. “Since I moved to Mayotte, I’ve always experienced water cuts on a smaller scale and restrictions from time to time,” he explains. Damien has been living in Mayotte for three years. This time around, the situation is more tense than he has experienced in the past. “There is not enough water on the island. For myself and my family, I always keep 60 litres of water stored in the bathroom to go to the toilet, to shower and to drink.”  

The tap water ‘started giving us stomach aches’  

“Even when there is water on tap, it’s not drinkable,” Estelle Youssouffa, an MP for Mayotte’s first constituency, told French radio RFI on September 13. “It’s brown and unfit for consumption.”  

Mayotte’s regional health agency, on the other hand, has assured the public that “the water is drinkable and can be consumed without being systematically boiled”, all the while advising residents of the archipelago to boil water used for drinking, cooking or brushing teeth for up to 12 hours after a day-long water cut.  

Poor water quality has already had an effect on the health of locals. “Many people” have complained of stomach aches and the sales of anti-diarrhea medicines in Mayotte have gone up in recent weeks, according to French overseas news site Outre-mer La 1ère.  

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“Before, I would filter the tap water and it was fine,” Damien explains. “But we stopped drinking it two months ago because it started giving us stomach aches.” He chose to take precautionary measures for fear the water could damage the health of himself and his family. “I have two young children, I don’t want to take any risks [with their health],” he says.  

Now, Damien and his family only drink bottled water. He says that he has “never stocked so many bottles of water” in his life as he has in recent weeks. And he considers himself “lucky” to have enough money to do so. A six-litre packet of water bottles in Mayotte costs between €4 and €5, but can reach up to €12, despite an order given by authorities on July 18 prohibiting shops from hiking their bottled water prices.  

In mainland France, a six-litre packet of bottles costs around €2.  

Mayotte is the poorest department in France and its overseas territories. In 2018, 42 percent of the population lived on less than €160 per month.  

“It’s a battle to have access to drinking water,” Andrea explains. “Packets of water bottles in shops are overpriced, rare and taken by storm as soon as they are delivered. It leads shopkeepers to almost criminally hike up the prices. They are taking advantage of the fact that people are being forced to buy bottled water.”  

A catastrophic but predictable crisis  

Water shortages in Mayotte have caused outrage. Besides the onslaught of angry posts found on social media, locals protested outside the Mayotte water management headquarters on September 9, holding up banners that read: “Mayotte is thirsty!” and “What do we want? Drinking water!”  

Protesters expressed frustration at the fact that “nothing has been done” in recent years to solve the water crisis, which has roots that run deep, according to Fahad Idaroussi Tsimanda, associate researcher at Montpellier’s geography and development lab Lagam. “The current situation is catastrophic, but we saw it coming. Mayotte’s water crisis dates back to 1997, we just let the problem linger on,” he says.  

According to Tsimanda, the roots of Mayotte’s water crisis are twofold: an inadequate water treatment infrastructure on one hand, and a scarcity of rainfall due to climate change on the other.  

“Between 2010 and 2020, there was less rainfall reported in Mayotte, despite being previously abundant during the rainy season. Now rivers have dried up, and locals have to wait until January for it to rain – something that used to happen in October,” Tsimanda points out.  

The water supply in Mayotte is largely sourced from two hill reservoirs, one located in the centre of its main island and another in the north. But unprecedented droughts meant that, by August 24, the two reservoirs only filled up to 25 and 14 percent of their full capacity, compared to 106 and 82 percent in August 2022. A third hill reservoir was meant to become operational in the 2000s, but the project is still under way today.  

What’s more, the government in 2022 admitted that a water desalination facility on the island “is not producing the quantity of water that was expected” (2,000 cubic metres per day instead of the expected 5,300). But authorities hope to restore the plant to its full capacity by the end of this year. Another treatment plant is due to open in August 2024, with the aim of producing at least 10,000 cubic metres per day.   

“It is also important to bear in mind that the water system in Mayotte has been leaking for several years now,” Tsimanda adds. Water management is a controversial topic on the archipelago and was criticised by a regional audit chamber in a 2020 report. The public prosecutor’s office even carried out an investigation into Mayotte’s water union, charging it with “favouritism”, “misappropriation of public funds” and “corruption”.    

Finally, the lack of water for Mayotte’s inhabitants could also be due to the fact that its population has been growing steadily for a decade. The population grew from 224,000 in 2014 to 310,000 in 2022, according to an estimate by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research (INSEE).  

Less water, ‘more tensions’  

To tackle the water crisis, the French government is sending a military cargo ship to deliver 600,000 litres of drinking water to the overseas territory. Set to arrive on September 20, the ship will depart from the Réunion Island, another French territory in the Indian Ocean located east of Madagascar.  

Troops with the French Foreign Legion and the French navy will work with local authorities to ensure water supplies reach the “most vulnerable sectors of the population”, the ministry for the interior and overseas announced on September 16.  

“The state is responding to an emergency situation. Now we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” says Andrea. He doesn’t see the water crisis in Mayotte ending anytime soon. “For now, the best thing is to continue with emergency measures.” He would also like the price of water bottle packets to be “regulated” until rainfall returns in November, which he hopes will be “abundant”.  

Damien, however, is afraid he may have to take his wife and children to safety if the situation doesn’t improve in the coming weeks. “We already have security issues in Mayotte (crime cases have become more frequent in recent months – Ed.), and the water crisis could create even more tensions. I want my family to stay away from all that, if it happens,” he says. He admits that “it’s complicated to live without the basic necessity of water right now”.  

“But I don’t expect anything from the government. When it comes to water management, they have fallen short here in Mayotte. We have no choice but to wait and see how things develop,” Damien concludes. That, and hope for rain come November.  

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality  

This article was translated from the original in French.