Yaounde: Government and Civil Sector Officials Discuss Issues with Water and Development in a Country Threatened by Climate Change

Ida Sophie Winter*

In her opening ceremony remarks at a November 26-27 water management conference in Yaoundé, held in partnership with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and United Nations Development Programme, Secretary General of Cameroon's Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training Jeanne Aim´e Ekotto set a challenging tone.

"Meetings are niceā€¦Trainings are nice," said Ekotto. "But jobs, education and health are essential."

Ekotto saw tangible human development results as the main goals of the conference. She cast water management as a human development issue, saying it can directly benefit the marginalized populations of Cameroon.

A focus on the environment must be part of this management, however, due to the dire effects of climate change on Cameroon's population. Through the conference, the government and its partners aimed to connect environmental sustainability and human development, but also to solve another issue considered, by some, as the most pressing obstacle to development work in Cameroon: a lack of communication among government and civil sector organizations, leading to a deficiency in funding from the government to sustain development projects.

This funding grows more crucial each year in Cameroon: despite a national GDP, in 2014, of $32.55 billion (the World Bank ranked Cameroon as the 98 th of 194 countries in terms of GDP in that year), roughly 40 percent of Cameroonians live in poverty. In 2006, 19.3 percent of children were underweight. Child mortality rates have increased over the past two decades. Health is restricted by little access to drinking water, which affects 26 percent of the population and increases the risk of impure water-borne diseases like cholera. Due to these factors, average life expectancy in Cameroon is 55 years.

Each region faces different challenges, many of which are exacerbated by climate change. In regions like the western coastal Bakassi, residents lack electricity and have limited access to potable water and health services. In the south, waterborne diseases are spreading due to prolonged rainfall and flooding.

In northern Garoua, meanwhile, residents must manage water usage closely or face looming shortages, as average temperatures increase and annual rainfall drops. Without action, these climate effects will probably worsen over time, drying up streams and lakes important to livelihoods and increasing land desertification Through salination and inadequate fresh water supply, climate change also threatens agriculture, one of the country's most important revenue sources and a sector on which 70-75 percent of the population depends for survival.

Government workers and civil sector employees connected with each other on these issues throughout the conference. First, they trained together in facilitating participatory development at the local level under Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, president of the Moroccan-American NGO High Atlas Foundation. Through their training, participants learned how to help communities lead environmentally sustainable improvement in living standards. Participants then shared their own regional struggles with environmental sustainability and human development.

Jean Jacques Kamsu Tchuenteu, a water and sanitation advisor with the NGO Plan International, concentrated on the burden women and girls face in gathering drinking water due to a lack of widespread hydraulic infrastructure. The water gathering process can sometimes take several hours, he said, and decreases educational opportunities by diverting time and energy from school. He also indicated that many reservoirs in Yaound´ are not functional, causing mud to mix with water normally used for drinking.

Sylvie Ndongo, a hydraulic engineer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, pointed out that many women and girls suffer from illiteracy and poor math skills, which hinder their ability to engage in most skilled work.

Chief of Service of Pasture and Pastoral Management Kilian Asongwe, part of the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, indicated that herdsmen from Nigeria are moving into Cameroon due to the threat of terrorist group Boko Haram, increasing tensions regarding limited potable water supply and agricultural land.

Alain Temegne Seutchieu, an engineer with the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development, presented information on agricultural conflicts among hundreds of people in the west regarding water-intensive rice cultivation and the linked deferral of water from those farther downstream toward the end of the dry season, when fresh water is in short supply.

The Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation's Patrick Mounoumeck discussed the issue of communication between governments and NGOs, indicating that, while many organizations are working on the same development issues, the government could more efficiently direct those organizations' resources if it was informed of their activities.

Multiple participants said that due to this ignorance and flawed or nonexistent project reporting on the local level, the government is not financing rural development as widely as is needed.

According to some, this issue is part of a much larger problem with development in Cameroon, namely a lack of communication between the government and civil sector, and little sustained development effort.

The Cameroonian government has taken steps to pursue ecologically friendly development. In 1996, the Cameroonian government created the National Environmental Management Plan, a strategy that outlines the pursuit of sustainable development through a variety of measures, including implementation of training programs, dissemination of development methods and information exchange, all topics highlighted throughout the conference.

According to a 2002 assessment of the NEMP by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, though, coordination of activities among civil society actors is a "major challenge" in development, as is the government's suspicion of legislative input by those outside of the government. The assessment pointed to these factors as responsible for largely excluding civil society from project monitoring and policy making. According to a 2011 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the African Development bank, the government's lack of sector-focused programs, regular action focused on climate change and a system to collect project information.

One reason for a purported lack of sustained focus on climate issues may be the government's abiding concern with other, seemingly more immediate concerns. The OECD and AfDB write that the Government of Cameroon shows greater interest in job creation and combating poverty as compared to efforts linked with climate change. The organizations indicates that climate change is "not a priority" and "unlikely to become so in the near future" due to limited awareness throughout the country and a lack of capacities within ministries to implement climate-focused programs.

They write that projects focused on development and climate change have therefore largely been the work of NGOs, which, according to the NEMP assessment, are troubled as national NGOs lack influence due to disorganization, inexperience, and insufficient human and financial resources.

Furthermore, international NGOs tend to implement programs based on their externally determined priorities rather than basing them on knowledge of the hosting communities and their needs.

In the conference, participants began formulating solutions to issues in development and promoting greater communication through cross-sectorial contacts. They also learned how to facilitate community meetings at the local level, thereby allowing community-led development to spread throughout rural and urban Cameroon.

The conference highlighted the national government's interest in enhancing its own development capacity and its willingness to partner with the civil sector to focus on climate and related development issues. It is not clear, however, how far-reaching that official interest and its effect on marginalized Cameroonians will be.

For now, though, perhaps the Government of Cameroon can spark solutions to climate change and social issues by focusing on environmental preservation through a human development lens.

*Ida Sophie Winter is a student at the University of Missouri. She spent the 2014-15 academic year as a Boren and Critical Languages Scholar in Morocco. During the fall of 2015, she worked with the High Atlas Foundation as a project manager and development writer.


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