Mauritania’s parched earth

June 8, 2012

By Susana Vera

There’s one thing I always do upon returning from a work trip. As soon as I leave my camera bag and suitcase on the floor I jump into the shower. I like having the water run down my face for a few minutes. I find it both relaxing and cleansing.

I never think much about how much water I’m using, I just tell myself that I “need” it, that I have a “right” to indulge after a long journey. I play around with the water temperature until I get it to that state where it’s neither too hot, nor too cold. After I finish, I head to the kitchen and make myself some food. That’s the same thing I did two days ago when I returned from Mauritania. But contrary to my habit in theses circumstances, I took a navy shower. I let the water run down my body just long enough to rinse the shampoo and soap off. The whole process took less than two minutes. Ten days in drought-stricken Mauritania photographing people rationing every bit of this precious and scarce resource are responsible for that change of heart.

Finding water and food to feed their families are the two main concerns of the population in Mauritania’s southern Gorgol region. What used to be the breadbasket of the country has, since the 1970’s, been significantly affected by climate change, causing a decrease in agriculture and the intensification of desertification. This has resulted in the exodus of many men from their villages to urban areas or even abroad to find jobs to support their families.


Women, the elderly and children have been left behind to work their land and care for their livestock. But that’s a very difficult mission when water supplies are running low due to severe rainfall deficit. If it does not rain soon, most crops and animal pasture will be lost and access to food for poorer families will become almost impossible.

I traveled to Mauritania with the Spanish Non-Governmental Organization Accion contra el Hambre, which has been warning about the food crisis since the beginning of the year after poor rainfall in 2011. According to their estimates, a full third of the country’s population, amounting to around a million people, are at risk of suffering from malnutrition if rain doesn’t fall by July.

Most women I encountered said that the situation is getting so bad that they can only feed their children once per day. The water wells in their communities are drying up and their starving animals are dying little by little. Many families are getting by with the emergency food rations given to them by the different NGOs working in their region. Some have already taken their children to nutritional centers to recover from malnutrition. The next few months, those of the rainy season, which lasts from July to September, will be crucial to cope with the current food shortages and future crises.

My short experience in Mauritania has made me put things into perspective. As a photojournalist living and working in Spain I have turned my camera to document the effects of the economic crisis on a country that currently has one of the worst jobless figures in the developed world. Evictions of home-owners who can’t pay their mortgages, unemployment lines that keep growing every month, closed down businesses, protests on the streets… they are all heart-breaking stories that talk about a people struggling to get their economy back in order. Many families are suffering a great deal, but most of us in Spain believe that we will see the light at the end of the tunnel in the next few years.

It’s very important to remember, though, that there are other places in the world where life is a race for survival, a perpetual crisis, and that they also need help getting back on their feet.

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