Large trucks and buses roll through the only paved road connecting Dakar to Bamako, transporting passengers and merchandise to villages along the way. Every 50 kilometers or so, those trucks and buses stop – drawing women and children out from behind their red earth covered tables and roadside stands carrying bags of water in a bowl on their heads. In most of these towns, these bags of water are the only way to keep people safely hydrated since potable water is not common.

In cities throughout West Africa, bags of water can be found in many of the same small stores that sell pocket tissues and single eggs. In Francophone countries, these stores can be found by looking for the small orange symbol posted out front, or the white refrigerator at the side at the entrance where water bags and small bottles of Fanta soda are chilled. In the villages, those bags are kept in refrigerators inside the homes of the sellers, keeping them cold for the next day when it’s back outside to sell.

In Kayes, Mali, the first major city found about an hour from the Senegal-Mali border, each 500ml bag of water costs 50F, or US $0.10. In many areas of the city, it’s the only affordable solution to accessible drinking water.

“Before, in the center of the city you saw the girls selling water on their heads like in the villages, but when people started setting up the boutiques, you see them less and less. The water they used before, it wasn’t sanitary either. The women had their children put it in a bag. Since no one can afford water bottles, if you work in town, or you’re outside, or if the pump in your town doesn’t work, this is the only way to drink water – unless you borrow from someone.” – Oumar Jon’kasi, a bagger at a water transformation unit in Kayes

Oumar Jon'kasi stands near water bagging machine in Kayes, Mali

Oumar Jon’kasi stands near a water bagging machine in Kayes, Mali

Every day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Jon’kasi, along with 5 other workers, starts up the machine that brings water from the outside water pump into the transformation unit, through 9 separate filters to fill the small 500 ml bags. The workers then take a larger plastic bag and fill it with 30 water bags at a time, stacking the finished product until the room is full.

Worker stacks bags of water before shipment

Workers stack bags of water before shipment.

Once every 3 days, a truck comes to transport the 1000 15-liter bags of water to the Senegal-Mali border and to the small villages along the way. Motorcycles also come each day to transport 5 or 6 of the larger bags to boutiques in  the nearby towns.

The business surrounding water bagging production and delivery has many moving parts. Even in smaller villages, there are villagers who work selling the water that’s filtered and bagged in the larger cities. But there is a downside to bringing clean drinking water to dozens of small villages between the major cities, all those little plastic bags create lots of trash.

The manani, Bambara for ‘little plastic bags accounted for, 3%, or 20,000 tons of Mali’s overall waste in 2015. That 3% figure may seem small, but it’s growing at a startling rate, considering each water-bagging machine can produce up to 50 bags each minute.

Women walk near a pile of plastic rubbish in Kayes, Mali

Women walk near a pile of plastic rubbish in Kayes, Mali

In response to the growing problem of plastic littering the environment, the government of Mali outlawed the import, production, commercialization and detention of non-biodegradable plastic byproducts throughout the country in 2014. But the bags are still collecting as the need for safe drinking water for Malians continues.

“We get the bags from Ghana, the Machine comes from China, if we don’t have these how will we afford to drink, the bottles cost 500F (~$1.00). 500F, 500F all the time, nooo.” – Sohourou Nianè, a landlord at a water-bagging unit near Kayes.

The arrival of bagged water was quick to catch on, providing a simple, cost-effective solution to an immediate problem for people in this part of the continent who were lacking access to affordable, potable water. But solutions to the environmental problems the plastic bags leave behind are slow to be identified. Recycling initiatives are beginning and awareness is slowly growing among villagers.

Projects like TrashyBags.org in southern Ghana and recycling programs in eastern Mali are two of only a few examples where local groups are taking the lead in creating innovative approaches to dealing with all the used up plastic. But the more serious problems that will arise from failing to deal with plastic waste will be more than just inconvenient eyesores along the roadways connecting the region’s cities. To avoid even more serious and long term environmental damages, more regional actions are needed to meet the challenges of West Africa’s fast approaching future.