State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

JM Eagle and Earth Institute Bring Cleaner, Safer Water to Thousands in Rural Senegal

Jeff Sachs, Walter Wang, CEO of JM Eagle
Jeff Sachs, Walter Wang, CEO of JM Eagle

Rural villagers in one of the poorest and driest parts of

Senegal are turning on their taps for the first time and seeing water flow freely from the ground into their containers. JM Eagle, the world’s largest plastic pipe manufacturer, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University announced on January 14 the official completion of a new water infrastructure system that is bringing safer water to more than 13,500 people in western Senegal. Begun last summer as part of the Millennium Villages Project, the new water supply network consists of almost 70 miles – or over 108 kilometers – of plastic pipe that connects to 63 villages.  More than 99 percent of the region now has easy access to water via 81 new public taps as well as 11 animal troughs.

“Water is at the core of economic development and human well being,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute. “With water there can be productive agriculture, good nutrition, sanitation, and health. Without water there is only poverty and disease. Yet water is under unprecedented stress, from inadequate farm practices, climate change, population pressures, and pollution. This is a path breaking partnership that illustrates how the poverty trap can be broken even in the very poorest places in the world. Just as importantly, it is serving as a bellwether for other areas throughout Africa where government leaders and local communities are aiming to emulate what has been accomplished in Senegal.”

Among the participants at the official ceremony in the village of Leona were Senegalese government officials and dignitaries, as well as Earth Institute director, Jeffrey Sachs, and JM Eagle CEO, Walter Wang and his wife Shirley. The event marks the completion of the first phase of a broader JM Eagle/Millennium Villages initiative to build similar water infrastructure systems in five other African countries including Mali, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. Developed by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the Millennium Villages Project fights extreme poverty at the village level through community-led work that is supported by a variety of public and private businesses and organizations.

“When we first arrived in Senegal there seemed to be much disparity and little hope among many of the villagers we met due to the extreme poverty,” commented Walter Wang of JM Eagle, which is headquartered in Los Angeles. “To see that attitude replaced with joy and smiles when they realized they now have safe water in their villages is gratifying beyond words.”

In addition to donating the raw materials for building the water network – including close to $1 million worth of high-strength polyvinyl chloride (PVC) water pipe – JM Eagle also funded two full-time engineers. This material and expertise was used to extend an inadequate water distribution system – that was reaching only one-third of the communities – so that almost all of the Potou area in northwestern Senegal now has access to clean drinking water as well as non-potable water for irrigation.

While it’s too early to determine specific results from the new water infrastructure system, anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s already having a significant impact. “Water will have a positive economic impact for women,” commented Khoudia Diaw, who lives in the village of Leona. “They have more time to generate income instead of spending all day at the well.” Others also mentioned that their daughters could now attend school because they no longer had to spend so much of their time finding clean water.

“It doesn’t take time like it used to,” said Khady Sarr who’s from the village of Merina Simong. “Women sometimes used to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the well. We had to organize ourselves because water was scarce. A group would fetch in the morning, another in the middle of the day. [And] another in the evening and the last group in the night. However, there was no guarantee the well would have water.” Others interviewed mentioned that in some villages there was no water because wells dried up, or the water that did exist was contaminated. Consequently, there was an “incessant process of women going back and forth to find water.”

Dr. Sachs noted that working with JM Eagle was vital because their involvement helped to secure support for the project from the government of Senegal, which ultimately dug additional wells and built water towers as part of the overall initiative. “Public-private partnerships are essential for solving the problems of extreme poverty and sustainable development, and as evidenced by this project, can have a major impact in solving global problems such as water scarcity in developing nations,” he said.

Mr. Wang said that while water is the vital link to health and economic advancement across the globe, the world is facing a crisis, not just in the availability of water, but in its management. “By helping to develop the necessary water infrastructure in Senegal, we are fulfilling an immediate need, as well as providing the basis for long-term, sustainable solutions that are the link to health and economic prosperity in communities throughout the region.”