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Kurmuk's Water Market

February 9, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mamun Idris, a member of Kurmuk's water committee, manages projects that maintain and improve residents' access to water. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Gold can be found in the hills around Kurmuk, but when dry season hits this part of eastern Sudan, an even more precious commodity is water.

During the nine-month rainy season, hand-dug channels funnel water into a reservoir on the outskirts of town. From there it is piped year-round to a set of eight taps and a garage-sized water tower, both of which are just off the town's market square.

It falls to Kurmuk's water committee, founded in 2005, to maintain the generator used to pump the water the kilometer or so from the reservoir and the two intown water points, and to collect usage fees at each. Mercy Corps supports the committee with trainings on management, budgeting and the like, and with small grants that have helped repair the generator and unclog the reservoir's intake troughs.

Both sites were busy when we stopped by late this afternoon. The metal water tower is quite a scene. Riveted in a nine-by-nine grid on each side, the container looks like a giant Rubik's Cube perched 20 feet off the ground. Below, in the same way cars line up at a gas station, donkey carts await their turn to fill up. Just like at a full-service pump, a water attendant inserts the nozzle in the tank, fills it up, then quickly moves the still-running hose to the next customer's barrel. (OK, maybe that last part isn't quite the same.)

It costs five birr for a water vendor to fill the 200-liter barrel that he hauls around on his donkey cart. (Business in Kurmuk, which sits on Sudan's border with Ethiopia, is done in both Sudanese pounds and Ethiopian birr, but prices are generally quoted in birr. And nine birr equal about one U.S. dollar these days.) Hanging from each cart are two plastic jerry cans used to portion out water; the going rate is about two birr per can. Each barrel fills 10 jerry cans, and it's possible for a vendor to fill and empty his barrel six times during the course of a day.

Do the math and the bottom line is this: an enterprising water seller can pocket more than 100 birr in a day — not bad by Kurmuk standards. I haven't gone as far as to see if the profession pencils out once you figure in the initial investment, which is sizeable. A donkey, I was told, can cost 3,000-4,000 birr, and the cart runs another 5,000.