Environmental health challenges in Mauritania

March 2013

WHO is working with the government of Mauritania to improve water quality, sanitation and hygiene for its most vulnerable people.

In Mauritania, life expectancy is less than 60 years. Twenty years of drought have caused a profound demographic transformation in this country, which is 90% desert. The nomadic population has rapidly declined, with people settling in rural areas and in shantytowns in cities where access to clean water and sanitation is scarce.

Water being supplied in plastic containers, Mauritania.
WHO/L. Ould Baba

Water is often supplied via plastic containers carried by donkeys. In markets, the carcasses of goats attract swarms of flies while failing sewage systems often contaminate the groundwater supply.

Serious health risks

The Mauritanian people faces serious health risks and many children suffer from diarrhoea and other diseases related to deteriorating environmental conditions. Around 2150 Mauritanians, including 1700 children under the age of 5 die each year from diarrhoeal disease. WHO estimates that nearly 90% of these deaths are directly attributed to the poor quality of water, sanitation and lack of hygiene.

The Mauritanian government faces many challenges to improve the situation including :

  • creating water sources
  • building toilets
  • teaching basic hygiene.

For the past three years, WHO has worked with the government to improve the living conditions of people living in the areas most vulnerable to climate change, the provinces of Assaba, Brakna and Trarza in the south of the country.

WHO’s involvement has been on three fronts:

  • improving the quality of drinking water, sanitation and hygiene in schools
  • decentralizing the control of water quality beyond the capital
  • managing medical waste properly.

A water control laboratory on wheels

A mobile water control laboratory supplied by WHO to Mauritania, two years ago, is an important resource to monitor water quality in the most remote rural areas.

A land rover converted into a mobile lab to test water quality, Mauritania.
WHO/L. Ould Baba

This Land Rover has been converted into a mobile lab that is able to perform around 250 chemical analyses of water quality and provide immediate results as well for microbiological analyses. The mobile lab allows health authorities to intervene quickly in a crisis. In parallel, a network of eight regional laboratories have been established and personnel in the Ministries of Health, Sanitation and Water have been trained to monitor the quality of water.

Cleaner schools

Step by step, things are beginning to improve. In the El Baraka School in the capital city of Nouakchott, for example, water basins have been installed and advice provided on handwashing and hygiene in classrooms and toilets. The entire school community – students, teachers and administrative staff – are active players in creating a more hygienic school.

The improvements have even carried over to the street vendors who sell to the school community. The vendors have been introduced to the WHO recommendations to improve the quality of the food that they sell. According to the headmaster of the school, the changes have been significant. Improving conditions for students means less absenteeism and ultimately more successful young Mauritanians. More than 6500 people have benefited from the project to improve hygiene in schools.

Incinerators of medical waste

Health centres located in these regions are also creating a healthier environment with the installation of 6 biomedical waste incinerators. Medical waste is a reservoir of infectious microorganisms that pose a health risk – not only to patients, visitors and health workers – but can also contaminate the soil, water and air with hazardous substances. Training in medical waste management and monitoring the implementation of recommendations helps protect the environment both now and in the future.

More than US$ 280 000 have been invested in improving the health of the poorest Mauritanians, within the framework of United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Improving environmental conditions is a key to fighting poverty both in Mauritania and in most countries of the Sahel.