Water and Its Absence in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania
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Water and Its Absence in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania

In the arid landscapes of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, water, and the scarcity of water, constitutes a pervasive idiom for the multiple challenges faced by both rural and urban inhabitants – nomadic and sedentary. That water, and access to it, is a precondition of life and to socio-economic development in general, has continuously and consistently been made clear to me during years of multi-sited fieldwork among nomadic pastoralists in the southeastern region of Hodh ech Chargui, as well as among poor residents in the fringe areas of the capital city of Nouakchott, culminating in my doctoral dissertation, “Our Life Is Water: An Ethnography of Scarcity in Contemporary Mauritania” (Vium 2013a). In particular, I became aware of ways in which water and its governance constitutes not only a political and economic issue but also a moral one. Scarcity demands elaborate social systems of management, and among the nomadic pastoralists, these are inextricably linked to notions of morality (Vium 2015). In urban areas such as the capital city of Nouakchott, where access to water remains a major concern for large parts of the population, people resort to various practices of what I call water tinkering so as to ensure the availability of water despite shortages and excessive prices. In a context of incessant infrastructural breakdowns and interruptions to the flow of water, such socio-technical practices constitute essential features of the urban fabric.

In the barren nomadic landscapes of the southeastern frontier provinces, recurrent droughts dry out the pastures, creating a heightened density of humans and animals at the far in-between water points. For the dispersed factions of nomadic pastoralists inhabiting this hostile environment, increasing environmental scarcity, coupled with escalating political instability (such as, for example, the growing regional activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM]), has been an ongoing concern during the past decade (Vium 2013b).

“We are tounoussou [disoriented]. The rains are absent and the pastures are dry. These are difficult times.” These frustrated words of Ali, a nomadic herder, whose camp I had visited on several occasions since I first met him in the Hodh ech Chargui province in early 2001, encapsulates the growing sense of uncertainty that has come to characterise life in the bâdiyya (“desert”). As I have described in detail elsewhere, several of my interlocutors who grew up and lived as nomadic pastoralists their entire life in the rural areas explained how they were worried that the presence of people associated with the AQIM in the face of the conflict in neighbouring Mali would negatively impact on their livelihoods (Vium 2013b). Ali told me about his premonitions as he waited to water his meagre herds of camels and goats at the well of Ain al-Argoub in the vicinity of the remote desert city of Oualata during the build-up to a severe drought in early 2012. The concept of “tounoussou” (which literally means disorientation) captures the escalating uncertainty that permeates the bâdiyya, engendering distinct forms of local socio-political turbulence that threaten to unsettle nomadic livelihoods. The people among whom I worked in the frontier areas near Mali relayed a number of rumours about strangers thought to be related to the AQIM, who had been sighted in remote areas, and they expressed concerns about how the presence of such nebulous elements might affect their situation. The impending droughts only made people more anxious. When conflated, scarcity and distrust produces a precarious situation that disturbs local systems of governance.

While adept at navigating the demanding natural environment, Ali found himself increasingly incapable of anticipating the natural socio-political dynamic that presently shaped his surroundings. In fact, he was concerned to a point where he seriously considered abandoning his nomadic livelihood altogether. It seemed to me, the entire nomadic livelihood was under siege. An environmentally and politically generated entropy seemed to be infringing on an otherwise robust sociocultural resilience predicated upon high levels of mobility. Nowhere was this more evident than at the wells – the pivotal environmental, social, and political technologies that regulate the pressure, flow, and distribution of water, people, and animals in the desert. The...