(Douala) It’s the rush at dawn in front of the taps spitting water at a rolling boil from the private borehole of the Guinness brewery in Bassa, a working-class district of Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon.

The failures of the public service in the largest metropolis of Central Africa push thousands of city dwellers every day to “travel” to countless boreholes of this type, dug in a totally anarchic way, at the risk of polluting the groundwater. So at the risk of public health in a city where cholera still occasionally rages, among other things.

Worldwide, “we are taking too much water from the ground, we are polluting the water that is left,” Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for water to the United Nations, said recently before the conference. the UN on Wednesday in New York on the global water crisis, the first since 1977. Some two billion human beings did not have access to drinking water in 2020, according to the UN.

Including in highly urbanized areas, such as Douala and its four million inhabitants.

Armed with multicolored carboys and jerrycans, even simple bottles, men, women and children jostle for access to water from the borehole of the Guinness brewery. They fill their car trunk with it, the luggage rack of a motorcycle taxi or leave with a bucket on their head. Poor and less poor. Often helped by strong fellows who make a living out of it.

The government can assure that Camwater, the public company, supplies “the majority” of homes, without providing figures or even estimates, no one believes it.

Not far from Bassa, at PK12, another popular district, two machines shake the ground in a corner of land wedged between constructions of all kinds.

The drill stake that pierces it indefinitely seems impossible to measure. Workmen regularly throw shovelfuls of sand where the metal attacks the earth to facilitate penetration. But it must immediately be extracted from the hole, by infiltrating Polyfor, a chemical additive, which brings it out in the form of gangue.

At the same time, a huge pipe connected to the drill discharges thousands of liters of water for cooling. The elements and mechanics that rub together in this way spit out a muddy liquid, which a young technician scoops up with a shovel.

The small company Hydyam forage of Serge Diffo will soon complete yet another of these wells in Douala…

“If the rules of the art are not respected, everything on the surface of the water table is a source of pollution”, explains this hydraulic engineer. “Septic tanks border boreholes in blocks of houses”, he regrets, specifying that the boreholes for individuals are not subject to any prior authorization. A heresy in a highly urbanized environment.

“Each individual, according to his means, digs one or more holes without reporting to anyone,” confirms Professor André Firmin Bon, hydrogeologist at the University of Maroua.

“The density can be around 100 boreholes per km2 and, as they are sometimes in communication with sources of pollution, latrines, landfills, etc., the soil no longer plays its role of purification” for the water table, he laments. , fearing an increase in gastroenteritis at best, cholera at worst. And longer-term cancers.

In the upscale valley of Logbessou, in this same 5th arrondissement, the villas display their “caps” as far as the eye can see. This is what Mohamadou Sarkifada, a resident transport executive, calls the water tanks, huge and unsightly black, gray or blue plastic water bottles that store water from boreholes.

“It’s a concern”, recognizes Hamadou Youssoufa, delegate of the Ministry of Water, attributing it to the unbridled expansion of the city and “a galloping demography”.

A study by the international scientific journal The Pan African Medical Journal, from May to June 2018 in this 5th arrondissement of Douala, counted “more than 65.55% of households consuming borehole water”. “53.59% walked between 1 to 5 km and 49.25% walked more than 15 minutes to get water”.

A study by the Ministry of Water is underway to “examine the sanitary situation of the boreholes”, “it will make it possible to oblige users to comply with the standards”, assures Mr. Youssoufa.

President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon with an iron fist for more than 40 years, himself seems to have grasped the extent of the peril: in his New Year’s greetings, he “asked the government” to launch emergency, “from 2023”, a “mega drinking water supply project” in Douala and its surroundings, in the pipeline for several years.

Repeated promises that leave marble François Songue, 75 years old retiree. He waits, like dozens of others, in front of the Guinness tap. “In my neighborhood, we wait for water from the Camwater until two in the morning, it does not come! I walk more than 10 kilometers here to get water to drink for my wife, my children and me,” he gets irritated.

“We trust” the brewery, “the water is not drinkable in our neighborhoods, we prefer to travel to get it here”, punctuates Jodelle Foguem, a young cleaning lady.

These “trips” to the water are the daily life of the most modest: it takes at least one million CFA francs (about 2199 Canadian dollars) for a borehole, when the guaranteed minimum monthly salary is 41,875 francs (about 94 Canadian dollars ).