When people in the US think of Mali, they might associate it with Timbuktu; a city, assumed by many as mythical, on the fringes of the Sahara Desert and so remote it is referred to in an English metaphor: ‘from here to Timbuktu’ - meaning the end of the earth. Or they might think of our vibrant music scene and international exports including the Songhoy Blues, Salif Keita and Tinariwen. Others might perceive us, unfortunately, as a country riven by conflict.
Whatever your association, it is unlikely to be that of a country making quiet but impressive in-roads towards reaching its population with one invaluable, life-saving resource: clean water.
Yet, Mali is making significant progress in this area. According to the WHO and Unicef’s Joint Monitoring Programme for water supply, 74% of our 18 million-strong population is now enjoying access to clean water close to home.
At the current rate progress, this means that our land-locked nation could reach all Malians with clean water within a generation. No small feat when you consider that – according to calculations made by WaterAid using United Nations data – at current rates, the collective number of years by which nations around the world will fail to provide citizens with their human right to clean water, comes to a staggering 5,337 years in total. While 80 countries will not have universal access to a basic water supply by 2030.
We see every day how access to clean water and decent sanitation is transforming lives; empowering individuals and providing the ticket to better health, livelihoods and well-being.
Take, 58-year-old Oumou Traore, a larger-than-life matron who works at the Diaramana Health Centre in the Cercle de Bla, in the dusty plains of Mali’s south-central region of Ségou.
For nearly 38 years, Oumou has faithfully served her community - delivering countless babies and treating patients – without access to clean water.
Now, with the help of WaterAid and partner organisations, Oumou – known fondly by locals as ‘ma, ma, ma’ or ‘my mother’ - has clean water running directly to her consultation room. Already she and her colleagues are noticing a huge difference, with Oumou reporting a 71% decrease in mortality rates at the health centre.
Meanwhile, in the village of Samabogo, 54-year-old Ruth Diallo is at the helm of a female-led soap and shea butter collective. Theirs is a story of female empowerment. Every week, Ruth and 30 women from across the village meet under the shade of trees behind the local church to make soap and shea butter, which they sell at market.
Ruth tells us that the business is making a real difference to the women’s lives; not just teaching them about the importance of hand-washing and sanitation but also giving them independence and a source of income to help support their families and send their children to school.
And then there’s Youssouf Diallo, one of the performers in the Troupe Djonkala. Using just a linen-backdrop, chalked circle for a stage and a sound-system, 22-year-old Youssouf and his band of actors and musicians draw in huge crowds from across the village of Toukoro: putting on a lively, comedic performance to promote better sanitation and hygiene practices – like hand-washing with soap.
These snapshots not only capture the true spirit of Malians - their resilience, determination, humour and creativity - they also demonstrate how something so simple; access to clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene, can change the trajectory of entire communities for the better. At their core, these basic facilities mean better health; the foundation for happier, more fulfilling lives and opportunities for a better education and livelihoods. This is something that everyone everywhere should have access too.
Yet, while there is cause for celebration, there is also room for reflection and action. There are still 4.5 million Malians – a quarter of the population – without access to clean water and two thirds of the population – 12 million - are without decent sanitation.
What’s more, climate change, continued conflict and a fast-growing population mean that continued progress may be under threat.
Last month world leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the sustainable development goals, following high-level meetings at the United Nations in New York. At current rates of progress, we are still woefully behind on Goal 6 – the provision of clean water and decent sanitation for everyone, everywhere by 2030, which is fundamental to almost every area of development.
Ministers, country delegates and UN officials must recognise that water, sanitation and hygiene – known collectively as WASH – are the lynchpin of development and insist from now on that reviewing progress on other SDG targets includes analysis of the impact of WASH. The world will be watching.