Contrasting Responses to Water Scarcity – The French Response to Mayotte's Water Crisis

The French territory of Mayotte, nestled between Mozambique and Madagascar off the African East Coast, is experiencing a dire water crisis due to severe drought compounded by insufficient investment into water infrastructure and mismanagement. As the island grapples with water scarcity, the French government initiated emergency response measures, shipping bottled water, deploying aid, freezing the price of bottled water and suspending water bills. However, these reflex responses have only scratched the surface of the deeply rooted issue, leaving many residents feeling neglected as the situation remains far from resolved.

Organisations like Pharo Foundation firmly understand that water scarcity is a monumental issue with multifaceted contributing factors and levels of difficulty. Although we do not currently operate in Mayotte, our mission to solve water scarcity revolves around sustainable solutions, investing in and building water infrastructure whilst empowering communities through education and training in water management, which would be a helpful solution in Mayotte. This dual approach leads to self-reliance and better-protected water sources, with management systems to avoid a water crisis in the first instance. Whilst we also understand that in some cases, emergency response is essential to save lives, if this were in mainland France, the water problem would not have been left to spiral to this level of emergency. Our methodology diverges from this emergency response system and instead emphasises sustainable, long-term solutions.

The water crisis in Mayotte paints a picture of urgency. For years, there have been talks of building a third water reservoir and a second desalination plant to supply the population with drinking water. However, neither project has been approved nor begun. Furthermore, funding from the European Commission allocated to water solutions was suspended after an audit found irregularities.

Residents have reported unpredictable access to water, often enduring days with nothing at all. The severity of the water shortage has led to contaminated water, sparking worry of potentially lethal waterborne diseases. It has also led to interruptions in essential services such as healthcare and education. The French government does recognise this as a crisis but has relied on short-term solutions. Their actions momentarily eased the suffering of those in Mayotte, but it barely scratched the surface regarding the underlying problem. Whilst we respect their emergency aid efforts, we believe the focus of water policy should be on crisis prevention. Mayotte's infrastructure hasn't kept pace with its burgeoning population, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, leading to recurrent water shortages and compromised water quality.

The dichotomy between emergency measures and sustainable solutions becomes apparent in Mayotte's ongoing crisis. While emergency aid provides temporary relief, it falls short of addressing the root causes of the issue. Sustainable initiatives, on the other hand, foster community resilience, knowledge transfer, and infrastructure development, leading to enduring solutions. This methodology emphasises a holistic and inclusive approach in a situation where it looks as though the French government has neglected this French territory's upkeep. The water crisis in Mayotte presents a distressing situation exacerbated by a culmination of factors, among which the responsibility of the French government emerges prominently. Despite Mayotte's status as an offshore territory since 1976 and official status as a French department since 2011, it suffers from chronic underinvestment in essential infrastructure, notably in the water system. The government's failure to anticipate and address the increasing demand for water due to the island's growing population, coupled with the effects of climate change impacting water resources, underscores systemic negligence. Moreover, the suspension of funding and mismanagement of allocated resources for water supply improvement, as highlighted in the 2014 European Commission allocation, further amplifies the government's accountability in perpetuating the crisis. In 2011, the people in Mayotte asked for less autonomy and more governance from the French, so perhaps another aspect of this issue is the role played by a lack of ownership.

The people in Mayotte would benefit more from a Pharo-style approach to their water problem. This would involve investment into constructing robust and innovative infrastructure, including utilising underground water as well as surface water such as rainwater harvesting. A key part of this process involves the Mayotte citizens in every step of the process, from design to construction to management. The communities would also be actively involved in water management training, as well as water sanitation training, to ensure the longevity of their water security. Therefore, if water ever begins to spiral into a problem again, the citizens on the island would be able to adopt a more hands-on approach to developing a solution that is within their control.