Starting Monday, November 20, 17 million liters of bottled water will be distributed free of charge every month in Mayotte, where water flows from the tap barely two days a week. In this French department in the Indian Ocean, which has been hit by an exceptional drought, packs of water crammed into containers are arriving en masse by boat from mainland France and the neighboring islands of Reunion and Mauritius.
This distribution to the entire population, estimated at 330,000 – and no longer just to the 55,000 people considered vulnerable – has been presented by the government as an “exceptional” logistical operation, involving almost 200 civil security and fire department personnel, as well as the services of the island’s 17 communes.
This operation is coupled with another challenge: preventing the increase in the island’s pollution while collecting millions of plastic bottles, which add to the existing ones that have been distributed and those sold in stores. “We warned the Mayotte prefect in September to ensure that the water crisis would not be compounded by an environmental disaster,” said Michel Charpentier, president of the Naturalistes, Environnement et Patrimoine de Mayotte association. “We’re already lagging far behind when it comes to keeping the island clean. To put it mildly. In some places, the island and the lagoon are littered with garbage.”
“I fear a catastrophe because we’re already seeing the damage,” said Omar Said, president of the Wenka Culture Association, based in the Kaweni district north of Mamoudzou, where a vast Shantytown clings to the hillsides. “Our indicator is the bottle from the Reunionese brand Australine, which was the first to be widely distributed. We find them in the gullies. They end up in the mangrove, then in the lagoon and finally in the fish.”
The French government has acknowledged that Mayotte will have to deal with “an unprecedented volume of plastic packaging.” With the widespread distribution of free water to the entire population, up to 11.6 tons of plastic waste will have to be collected every day. “The equivalent of what is usually collected in three months in sorting bins,” observed Jérôme Josserand, head of Mayotte’s department for the environment, planning, housing and the sea. In 2022, only 45 tons of plastics were recycled.
To collect the empty bottles, the prefecture will launch a “1 for 1” initiative for the subsequent distribution of water bottles, where one bottle of water will be given for every empty bottle brought back. Everyone will have to return their empty bottles to receive full ones. “We will educate people, we’re not bullies,” said the Mayotte prefecture. The containers that brought the full bottles will be refilled with the empty ones.
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