Being in the middle of nowhere, the Sahara desert, Africa, an underdeveloped country one might have an image of people completely shut off from the rest of the world with no access to any modern aenities. Or being so used to all the comforts of the western world it maybe impossible to imagine a place that does not have them. So what utilities are available in Timbuktu and how do they work?

There is an electric and water company in Timbuktu: EDM, Energie du Mali. The Electricity is furnished by some enormous diesel generators. There are lines throughout the principle parts of the city although the very northern extremities do not have access as yet. Of course not every family is on the grid. Many do not have the means to permit them this luxury. Some families have electricity by tapping a wire in a home that is connected to the grid and bringing it to their home this may or may not be with the knowledge of the owner of the building. The electrician may have been paid something at the moment of installation to do such an operation and the beneficiaries are using it for free ever since or they may be paying something to the owner of the building for the privilege that is still cheaper that paying the lump sum of the installation fee for a counter in their own home.

Others have small solar panels that they use only during the day or maybe charge a 12 volt battery to runs some light bulbs at night. Others again have gasoline generators that they run when they want to watch some television or run some lights for a while. This is also popular for a marriage celebration for a few days or to run the loudspeakers and such for a musical event.

In families with no electricity whatsoever battery run torches and kerosene lanterns are the norm for light and almost every family has a small battery operated radio.

Electricity from EDM in Mali is 220V, plug configuration is two round prongs. Click here for a more detailed information on outlet configurations and voltages

Water is not far below the surface in Timbuktu as the ground water is at the level of the river. Families in Timbuktu get their water from one of three sources. There are three water towers in town that supply piped water to any house that signs up. Main lines have only recently (summer 2008) reached the northern extremities of the town. It required enough people wanting to sign up to be worth the cost of putting in the pipes. To get the pipes and the consummation counter to your house is quite expensive and requires time consuming red tape. Once installed however the cost of water is not prohibitively expensive for a middle class family.

For those people who do not have a spigot in their home there are some public faucets where they can fill jugs, buckets or even barrels and transport them home. There is one person who manages the faucet. This person charges a fee for water typically around 20 francs for a 20 litre jug or bucket, 100 francs for a 200 litre barrel. The same person pays the EDM water bill for all the water used at the faucet and the rest of the money taken in is his or her earnings.

There are also some public manual pumps scattered throughout the town. To my knowledge water from these are free to who ever makes the effort to pump it up.

There are also some wide diameter wells but these are not common in the city. In the region of Timbuktu they are the more common source of water. The farther into the desert you go the deeper they get and water is not pulled up by hand but by donkeys or camels. The well has a place to put a pulley and long cord and every family has its own which it brings to the well. The pulley is set in place in the permanent sticks planted next to the well and a large leather sac or more recently sac made of inner tube rubber is let down on the cord until it hits water. The camel attached to the other end of the cord is led away from the well until the bag reaches the top. A second person at the mouth of the well hollers out to stop and heaves the bag of water to empty it in some sort of trough or half barrel or other container for the animals to drink or else fills his water containers from it. In the desert water containers are sacs made of whole goat skins tied off where the knees would be the neck is the opening and tied off with a cord. The porous skin slowly leaks and the evaporation process cools the water within. More recently inner tube rubber has been used to fabricate sausage shaped water containers. They don’t leak but they don’t cool the water either.

On the Niger River many people still use the river water for everything washing, cooking and drinking. During the rainy season seasonal puddles and ponds are used. This leads to occasional outbreaks of cholera, and other infectious diseases transmitted via faecal mater.

Waste Water Management
In 2007 the city began setting up a system for waste water management. It was was poorly planned and executed as such it is a continuing source of revenue for employees who are engaged to fix things on it but rather that improve the situation of stagnant water and the illnesses associated therewith it has increased them.

Prior to the installation of this system waste water management was dealt with by individual families mainly in one of two ways: collection/drainage pits and dumping it into the street. These are still the predominant methods. Even in houses with sophisticated toilets, showers and sinks the waste would drain into a covered pit that would act like a septic tank. Any solid material would settle to the bottom and decompose. The sides of the pit would be reinforced with concrete but not the bottom allowing the water to slowly penetrate and seep back into the ground. After being filtered by many meters of sand the contaminants will have been removed and it will be potable again by the time it rejoins the general groundwater. When such a pit is full the family will hire some to open it and remove the contents. Typically they will dig a smaller pit nearby into which they will transfer the material and bury it.

Often the water from the shower etc enters a separate drain from that of the toilet this water being only grey is less foul. Grey water form showers, spigots dish and clothes washing that is washed down a drain may go into a separate soak pit. In theory a soak pit will work on the same principle without any solid mater to eventually fill up the hole. However families now use much more water than previously and the small systems often only a large water jar mostly buried where the pipe exits the wall are no longer adequate. they can not filter the water fast enough for the amount coming in. In this case a member of the family empties the jar or pit into the street periodically. In other families there is no grey water soak pit. The grey water drains directly onto the street or wash water is taken out in a buck and dumped in the street. In large streets with few people doing t his is simply soaks in and disappears but where large families have their mail water drains out onto the street this can create foul ditches and mucky potholes.

It was to mainly combat this problem of stagnant water in the streets that a waste water management system was introduced. In the old parts of town drainpipes from the homes were attached to pipes that connected to wide diameter drainpipes buried about a meter below the surface. where these pipes intersected square concrete pits were installed where the water could pour in before flowing out the opposite pipes down hill towards the drainage ditches. Along certain principle routes waist-high ditches lined with concrete were constructed. It was into these that rainwater and drain water would eventually run and from them into two large holding/settleing ponds on which the sides were reinforced with concrete and stone, The pits are connected by a huge culvert to equalize the water level. A pump house was build nearby with the intention of pumping the water from these temporary holding ponds to two larger settling/evaporation ponds about one kilometre away beyond the nearest dunes to the Northwest.

There have been several problems with this system. Homes do not have filters on their drainpipes to prevent solid mater from passing. This causes blockages in the pipe system which overflows at a week point and ends up flooding the street. There are frequently men out digging up the area of the presumed problem to try and fix it. The ditches are only covered in some areas and the covering are made with large gaps between the slabs this allows wind blown sand and trash to fill the ditches and block them preventing the waste water from reaching its destination creating stagnate pits and occasional overflows. There regularly teams of men out digging the muck out of the ditches into heaps on the edge of the road which are later loaded into a big bin and hauled away. Also the due either to the poor quality of the construction of materials use in lining the ditches or the instability of the soft sand in which they are set sections of the ditches have collapsed. Similarly poor construction has cause the lining of parts of the first settling ponds to collapse one such as fouled up the drainage into the pond so the ground around it had become a dangerous and filthy quagmire. excess build up of sediment has party stopped up the culvert as well and I am not sure what the situation is with the second set of ponds there have been problems with the pump as well.

Trash Disposal
In the past not nearly as much trash was generated and it was almost completely biodegradable. The nomads would dump their waste some distance away from the camp and would move on before it became a hindrance or health issue, by the time circumstance brought them again to the area there wind, sun, and scavengers would have reduced the waste to a few bits of bleached bone and some shards of pottery. In the towns of course, this is not possible still sun, wind and scavengers certainly helped to minimize trash. Today if you take a short walk away from Timbuktu you will find areas liberally covered with chunks of broken pottery and a heavier than usual concentration of bone fragments. These are presumably the remnants of midden mounds from the past.

Today, poverty is probably the single biggest reason Timbuktu is not overrun with garbage. There is no established municipal garbage collection or disposal system. There are some official interdiction of dumping but little enforcement and no alternative. In some neighbourhoods box-bed donkey carts make the rounds collecting household trash and sweepings for a fee. These are then taken and dumped somewhere where a lot of other trash is also dumped. The modern residents are less inclined to take their trash all the way out of town there are informal trash dumps scattered throughout the city in vacant or abandoned lots or less used streets. Some families will dig a hole just outside their house or in a back corner of their compound in which to dump the garbage; lighting it on fire occasionally when the hole fills.

From time to time a neighbourhood will decided to do a clean up and everyone: men, women and youths will come out in force with rakes and brooms to gather up the trash in heaps and burn it. Occasionally one of these dump sites is cleaned up by the proprietor or the city. If is is public land the city may call out a bulldozer to push the garbage into a heap burn it and then smooth everything around putting some sand over the worst of it. The hospital does have a small incinerator for medical waste. Only biohazard material are burned in it.

People consume much more than previously. The items they consume come with large amounts of packaging and the advent of plastic adds drastically to the problem. Specifically plastic bags with are plentiful cheep and considered
de rigeur for any purchase no mater how small or how close to home. Fortunately for the garbage problem the vast majority of people are still to poor to fulfill their consummation potential. Also for reasons of economy they reuse and recycle most items until no longer possible. Any sort of sealable container is washed and put to use as a canteen, to sell home made beverages or store perishables or valuables. Empty tins are used as units of volume measure for the sale of grains and spices. Children use the tins as wheels of home-made toy cars etc. empty rice sacks are reused to wrap, store or carry stuff until worn out when peaches are cut and used as dish-washing rags. The multilayer brown paper cement sacs are in high demand as parcel paper especially by the butchers who wrap your roast meat in it and often the raw meat as well. The no-longer re-useable paper and cardboard ends its days a fire starting material. Broken electronics and mechanical items are repaired repeatedly, held together with bits of wire and flip-flop then taken apart, any still workable bits scavenged to repair others. damaged and partially broken bowls, buckets and basins are used as dust pans, dustbins and ash buckets. Worn out clothes are cut up for baby diapers, cleaning rags, or torn in strips to be used as string or rope. Anything of an edible nature is offered to the family sheep and goats. If not for such measures the trash problem would be much much worse.

There are landline telephones in Timbuktu but mostly in offices of NGOs and Government bureaus, Some businesses also have fixed lines and a few shops or homes have them as well. It used to be common for the shops or homes use their phone more as a business of “phone booth” than for their own communications. The phone is hooked up to a counter that counts off units and the caller is billed a fixed sum per unit. Units are set to count at different rates depending on the destination of the call and the cost to call that number. That is one unit is fewer seconds to call the USA than to call Bamako. There were some actual phone booths installed in around 2004 that operated with a card. They worked for about two years.

The fixed line “phone booth” has fallen into disuse with the arrival of cell phones in Timbuktu. The first tower was installed in 2003. There are now two competing companies, Malitel and Orange (formerly Ikatel), and a multitude of towers scattered over the countryside so that you can have signal in a large area. It is very popular to have a cell phone so many people who have no real use for a phone have one. It is a common gift of young men to their girlfriends. Many people hanging around waiting take out their phone and play with it going through the ring tones or playing the games or pretending to make calls just to show off. This is in fact by far the most practical phone to have here: stringing phone cable through out the desert is a problem, but it is also has its downside.

The mobile service here is almost exclusively the prepaid variety. You buy a card with a code on it that you enter into your phone and are credited with a certain sum of money. This is then subtracted from as you make your calls. Receiving calls costs nothing. When it runs out you can still receive calls but you must add more credit to make calls. The code has a validity date that varies based on the amount of money it represents. Once activated the credit is only useable for a certain period after which your ability to call is blocked until you add more credit even if the credit is not used up. If you do not add more credit before a certain date than the phone number is blocked completely. This has the effect of forcing people to spend a minimum of a certain amount just to keep their phone. The validity date for only 1000 f of credit is quite short as well so you are obliged to add it frequently which means that you are spending more money than you realize as you do it in small increments. In all people in a poor country get hooked to their phones and begin to put them as a priority of their spending when before they would spend on food or maybe even offer to help out a neighbour now put in their phone. So many of these people do not really have a good use or need for a phone at all that they could avoid a lot of unnecessary expenditure by getting rid of the phone and only paying some money on the rare occasion they actually had to make a call. For more information about telephone internet or other communications services in Timbuktu see the page on

Internet was installed in Timbuktu in 1998. There are now two public internet places and it is becoming more common for private internet connections though these tend to be in the offices of NGOs the homes of expatriates and a handful of other offices. There are two providers again Wassa (Malitel) and Orange. In 2008 wireless internet has made it to Timbuktu as well. They are not without its flaws and frustrations. It claims to connect at 10Mbts/s. It also goes through the service at Bamako so if there is a problem with the servers there or here there is no connection. If there is a power outage in the area they are in there is no connection. The Wassa service included a telephone with an antenna that sends its signal to the malitel tower which sends it on to the next point. You add pre-paid credit as with the mobile telephone and it can be used either to make calls with the phone or connect with the internet. Sometimes it takes all day to connect with their system in order to add more credit. Sometimes it takes all day to get an answer from their server to connect you to the internet. Sometimes it works smoothly. They also have a much more costly system of cable connexion.

I have no experience with other Orange internet services but recently they have added a new system that works with a USB drive you put in the small drive that resembles a memory stick on which the program is installed. It contains a SIM card like those in the mobile phones which you can insert in your phone to add credit then you connect to internet to purchase a forfeit for a certain volume of bites. The smallest volume available is 1Go. when you have sent and received that amount the connexion is blocked until you add more. There is also a expiration date after which you must add more credit even if you have not consumed the full amount already purchased. Like the telephone once you add more you will again have access to the amount remaining. This has only recently (fall of 2011) become available in Timbuktu and is still quite slow.