06/25/2012 09:10 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

Waiting for Water: What the Drought in the Sahel Means for the People of Mali

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

For thousands of Malian women in the northern city of Gao, the day starts in the middle of the night. Women tie on veils, grab jerry cans and walk through the sandy streets in hopes of getting a good spot in line.

Then the wait for water begins.

Just ask Aminata. She got to the well at dawn, but a long line had already formed. Some women had been waiting since 3 a.m. Aminata waited. And waited. The sun came up. The heat started in. Soon, women who had arrived before her swished by, balancing the day's water on their heads. After five hours of inching forward, she got to the well. But it was too late. All that was left were the dregs, a grainy, tea-colored slurry.

With the well dry, Aminata had two choices: Rely on the Niger River for water, a chocolate-brown, slow-moving broth that slithers by the edge of town. Or wait for the slow seep of water back into the well.

Aminata stayed put. And decided to wait some more.

For women in Gao, water has become a nemesis. Without it, you can't bathe the kids, clean yourself after using the bathroom, or wash out the cinnamon-colored grit that settles into your hair. You can't slake your thirst -- a problem in a city where temperatures have been averaging over 105 degrees.

"The water situation is disastrous," says a Save the Children employee who works in Gao. "There is not enough for everyone, and it is not clean."

The city's water and electricity problems started not long after armed groups took over Gao on March 31st. Electricity, which used to be available around the clock, now kicks on around 6 p.m. and cuts off at 3 a.m. That means the generators that pump water to the city work less frequently. To make matters worse, some of the generators have broken down, which means a dramatic drop in the amount of water pumped through the city.

For people like Aminata, who live in the outlying areas, they no longer receive piped water. They now must rely on shallow wells. In one neighborhood, Quartier 4, with a population of 23,000 people, water is no longer being distributed. For Aminata and others, that means longer lines at the wells.

A lack of clean water and poor sanitation systems has made humanitarian organizations fear a cholera outbreak. Cholera is endemic in Mali, and last year 1,000 cases were reported in the North. The United Nations says a rise in cholera cases is likely. With a faltering water system in Gao and a lack of public health facilities, aid workers are concerned.

A cholera outbreak isn't on Aminata's mind. She and other residents -- many of whom fled from other parts of the North to escape fighting only to find more of it in Gao -- have other worries. But on a recent morning, they got a little relief.

Save the Children distributed supplies to make life easier, things that few people have extra money to pay for these days. Items like a bucket for hauling water, soap, toothpaste, laundry soap, and washcloths. Many people take these things for granted. Not Agness*, a 60-year-old grandmother who takes care of eight family members.

"I left Menaka after the attack on January 17th and went to Gao," she said, after receiving her goods. "Today is the first time I have received anything. When I left my home in Menaka, I had to leave everything behind."

When she got back to her shelter -- a woven straw and thatch affair with sand floors and a plastic mat on the ground -- her 4-year-old granddaughter was thrilled.

"The toothbrush is for me, grandma" she announced, "because you don't have any more teeth!"

Agness smiled and looked relieved. She said most days her children and grandchildren spend their time hustling on the streets to find money for food. Prices on some basic goods have spiked 70 percent. A barter system has sprung up because banks no longer function in Gao.

Some people have resorted to having family members in the Malian capital, Bamako, or the Nigerien capital of Niamey, give money to a merchant who then asks fellow merchants in Gao to give designated clients a portion of grain. Many people are surviving this way. The poorest of the poor rely on the kindness of others if they can't afford food.

Zinab*, a 70-year-old grandmother, is thankful for the Save the Children supplies. But she gently adds another request: "We also need help to eat and get medical care," she says. "My children are suffering a lot; we don't have as much to eat as we used to."

*Names have been changed

Crossposted from