France begins massive handouts of bottled water in drought-stricken Mayotte


Months into an historic drought on the Indian Ocean islands of Mayotte, France is ramping up its distribution of bottled water. From Monday everyone on the archipelago – no longer just its most vulnerable residents – will be entitled to a one-litre bottle per day, in a vast operation that environmental campaigners are warning will generate millions of tonnes of plastic waste.

Soldiers and firefighters are being deployed to hand out some 330,000 litres of bottled water per day on Mayotte, which is in the grip of its worst drought this century. 

For months now the crisis has forced authorities to shut off taps for days at a time, leaving residents dependent on what they could stockpile. 

Since mid-September, authorities have been distributing bottled water to around 60,000 of Mayotte's most vulnerable residents: the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women and newborns. 

On Monday the handouts were extended to the entire population – at least 310,000 people.

Plastic pollution

An estimated 17 million litres of bottled water will now be distributed every month, shipped to Mayotte from mainland France, nearby French Réunion or the island of Mauritius. 

All those bottles represent more than 11 million tonnes of plastic waste per day – "the equivalent of what we normally collect in our recycling bins in three months", the department's director of environmental services, Jérôme Josserand, told Le Monde newspaper.

In all of last year, only 45 tonnes of plastic was recycled in Mayotte.

Environmental campaigners are warning of a massive pollution hazard in a department that lacks the infrastructure to manage an influx of plastic waste. Thousands of the poorest residents live in slums, with no facilities for rubbish collection or recycling.

Local authorities are considering phasing in a "one for one" scheme whereby residents have to exchange their empty water bottles for full ones.

Meanwhile waste management company Citeo says it will install extra recycling bins where bottles can be collected and shipped to mainland France to be repurposed.

    Reservoirs, rivers low

    For the moment there are few viable alternatives to bottled water. 

    Sparse rainfall has left Mayotte's hillside reservoirs, which they rely on to get through the dry months of May to November, dangerously close to empty. And only three or four of the 11 rivers that supply the system are still providing water.

    France has deployed an emergency water treatment unit, more commonly used in refugee camps or after natural disasters, to produce drinking water from the few natural sources that remain. 

    On the Coconi river, French soldiers have been using the field filtration unit to produce water that is distributed to local schoolchildren

    "For now, there's still enough water in the river to produce 200 cubic metres a day – that's around 130,000 bottles," the head of the mission, Major Luc, told RFI's correspondent Jeanne Richard.

    But it's just a fraction of Mayotte's daily water needs, estimated at around 43,000 cubic metres. Usage has already dropped to 26,000 cubic metres per day due to the crippling restrictions, but daily supply is down to around 20,000 cubic metres.

    Major Luc stressed that the treatment unit was an emergency resort: "Our production can be reserved for the most vulnerable populations, or in the event that a village's supply is cut off, for example, we are able to bring water to that village."