Winner Of W. Eugene Smith Award 1986
Water In Sahel
The “Water in Sahel” story found its origin in the dramatic pictures of drought from the early 1980’s. The core of the 1980’s famine in Mali and Niger being the availability of water, this story tries to assess the situation on management of a vital ingredient for survival in the region.
The impact of global shifts in weather conditions is much bigger when the pact between Nature and human presence is fragile, when the difference between sheer survival and death is tenuous. This Sub-Saharan part of Africa does not need to be the perpetual victim: there is energy and know-how; local initiatives need relatively little outside help to find adapted solutions to improve the situation.
The region being extremely vast, the situations are quite diverse, and the access to water and its management in the vicinity of the Niger is completely different from what can be found at the Dogon cliffs, the Northern desert-like part of Mali, the Southern side of the Senegal river or the Atlantic coastline.
Yet water is life, and more so in the Sahel.
Belgian photojournalist John Vink traveled to Africa in 1985 and spent two years photographing water management issues in Sahel, an area that stretches across the continent from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Red Sea in the East. Encompassing parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea, the arid Sahel separates tropical rainforests from Saharan dessert. The lack of fertile soil and rainfall has contributed to numerous droughts and famines in the region; from 1968 to 1974, at least 200,000 people and 5 million livestock died. Access to and preservation of the limited clean water supply continues to be the most crucial issue in Sahel.
Vink was moved by powerful photographs of drought victims from the early 1980s in Mali and Niger. Rather than focusing solely on problems such as erosion and insufficient irrigation, Water in Sahel also highlights solutions. Vink documents how water is transported long distances via jars or goat skins and used to irrigate gardens, how women reduce soil erosion and improve water filtration by stabilizing the terrain. He photographs cooperative farmers working a plot of irrigated land, children watering vegetable gardens, and workers building a dam to produce electricity and regulate water levels. According to the photographer, “This Sub-Saharan part of Africa does not need to be the perpetual victim: there is energy and know-how; local initiatives need relatively little outside help to find adapted solutions to improve the situation.” Since the late 1980s, international aid organizations have contributed money to local officials who are trying to find innovative solutions to minimize the impact of drought, water-borne illnesses, erosion, and desertification. Vink, who was granted a W. Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography for this work in 1986, helped raise the visibility of these issues.
John Vink, of Belgium, documented the problems associated with water as a resource in the Sahel region of Africa, particularly efforts under way to prevent future large-scale droughts, to save vegetation and to aid people in their fight against illnesses related to the water shortage.