By James Addis (with reporting by Mary Peterson and Tom Costanza)
In West Africa, poverty assumes many guises. Take the village of Kpalang in northern Ghana. Here, both children and adults suffer regular bouts of typhoid, cholera and diarrhea and often play unwilling host to a debilitating parasite known as Guinea worm. Regular bouts of sickness mean villagers have less energy to devote to farms, meaning less food and lower incomes. Children such as 13-year-old Amina must devote their entire day to the stern task of simply staying alive—luxuries like going to school are out of the question. Children die often and early; those who don’t frequently go blind due to trachoma—an eye infection that can usually be successfully countered by face-washing.
It might seem incredible that all these grievous problems—problems that have been evident for centuries—could have a simple solution. But they do: it’s water. Ironically, in an age where we can send astronauts into outer space, one in five people in the developing world—1.1 billion people—struggle in abject poverty for want of a basic natural resource.
Until that commodity is avialable, Amina, like generations of West African children before her, must spend her day making several trips to draw water from a filthy pond that is prone to dry up. She then has to lug the water home in a bucket that, when full, can weigh about 50 pounds.
And what disgusting water it is. When World Vision President Rich Stearns visited Kpalang last year, he dipped a glass into a bucket of water drawn from the same pond Amina gathers from every day. Holding the sample up to the light, he discovered he was holding a gray stew of mud and animal feces. Even the thought of drinking it would make most Westerners retch.
“I can’t imagine letting my children drink this,” said Stearns, “but it is what I can’t see that frightens me even more”— a reference to the harmful bacteria that Kpalang villagers are forced to ingest with every sip they take.
Amina’s mother, Meimunatu, tries to make the best of it by straining the water through a sack to get rid of most of the muck, but the weariness in her voice suggests she is facing a losing battle.
“I had a baby last year who got sick and died because of the water,” she says. Soon Meimunatu will bear another child. It’s not an occasion for rejoicing. She holds out little hope for her newborn’s survival unless clean water comes to the village fast.
While it’s clear that water is the answer to West Africa’s problems, providing it calls for money, determination and imaginative thinking on a global scale. In 2002, the United Nations organized the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. At its conclusion, nations recommitted themselves to work toward a United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people lacking access to safe water by 2015.
This would not be the work of governments alone. The summit ushered in a new era of partnership: governments, businesses, academic institutions and aid organizations would combine forces to tackle global problems. One partnership in particular epitomizes the new thinking: the West Africa Water Initiative (WAWI).
For years, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and World Vision have worked together to bring clean water to poor rural areas in Ghana. In 2002 these organizations joined forces with eight others, including the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute, the US government and Cornell University’s Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. Each organization committed to bring their resources and expertise to drill 915 new boreholes, open up scores more alternative water sources and provide 10,000 new latrines—an effort expected to benefit 500,000 people in Ghana, Mali and Niger.
World Vision is responsible for drilling the wells, educating communities about well maintenance and hygiene and channeling more than $23 million of donors’ money into the program, being matched by the Hilton Foundation. As Steven Hilton, grandson of the hotel chain’s founder, said of WAWI: “We felt it was where we could have maximum impact on the most lives for the monies invested.”
Almost five years down the road, World Vision’s six well drilling teams and associated staff—hydrologists, sanitation specialists and civil engineers—are working hard to complete all project goals by the end of 2008. So far, the initiative has drilled more than 500 boreholes and installed more than 5,000 latrines.
To understand the difference this makes, one can look at the transformed lives in dozens of villages now enjoying ready access to safe water. In Dara, a village in Niger that nudges the southern edges of the Sahara Desert, it’s interesting to watch the face of any local person who recollects the day a borehole was successfully drilled in their village. Their eyes grow bright and a smile develops slowly until it illuminates the whole face.
Nobody recalls the first fountain of water spurting from the new borehole better than 10-year-old Abida Issa. “All the children were wet because they ran into the water, shouting and singing. It was a celebration,” she says.
Abida is responsible for providing most of the water for her family’s needs and must make six trips to the borehole to carry water home every day. But such labor does not dampen her enthusiasm. The water is clean and the borehole is just a two minute walk from her home. She easily accomplishes the job before school starts.
Today, the village schoolroom is crowded with enthusiastic pupils studying French, geography, history and math. Attendance has doubled since the borehole was installed. No longer are women and children forced to wait hours to draw water from a poorly supplied, polluted hand-dug well.
Community health worker Maazou Nouhou says that many common childhood ailments have simply disappeared. “Before, you would see children with trachoma and other problems, but now there are no such diseases in the village,” he says.
Abida’s father, Mallam (a village elder) recalls the way the lack of water blighted village life for years. Even an inadequate hand-dug well was the envy of surrounding villages and people would come from miles around to draw filthy water from it. “People were drawing water in the night because it was the only well. It was very difficult for women. They were even sleeping at the well to stay in the queue for their turn to get water,” he says.
What a difference today. Abida’s mother, Halima, says now that water is plentiful, women have time to make a better life for themselves and their families. She has joined with other women to begin a soap-making business.
The women meet regularly under a sweet-smelling neem tree and help each other with each stage of production, creating a sense of camaraderie. First, vegetable oil is boiled and strained. Then soda powder, glue and powdered detergent are added. Finally, the mixture is rolled into tennis-ball-sized spheres ready for sale at the market. Each fetches 150 francs (about 30 cents), undercutting the price of imported soaps.
It’s good soap, too. Halima shyly admits profits have been down a bit because village women have taken to using the product themselves—it makes their skin softer and smoother than other soap. Nevertheless, they anticipate the business will ultimately generate a healthy income. The women are not only thinking of the things they can buy with the extra cash but also ways they can invest in new enterprises such as raising chickens. Even Abida makes a little extra money by decanting water into clay pots and selling a refreshing drink to thirsty market-goers.
Meanwhile, with more water, the health of livestock has improved. Building construction is undergoing a transformation. There is now time—and water—to make clay bricks. Villagers are gradually replacing straw walls to make better, sturdier homes.
Today, Mallam marvels at the different life his daughter can enjoy. He is especially pleased by her success in school. She is one of the brightest in her class. “I think she’s fantastic,” he raves. “I have many hopes for her because she can go to school. I’m only sorry I did not get the chance to go.”
World Vision hydrologist Braimah Apambire says such ventures show how shortsighted governments have been in the past by not making access to water a priority. Although the health benefits of good access are obvious, he says, investing in water resources also provides a good economic return.
“The truth is, once people have water, there will follow many things,” he says. “Agricultural development, economic development—everything will follow when you are able to provide water.”
But while one can rejoice with the people of Dara, it pays not to lose sight of girls like Amina and the villagers of Kpalang, whose experiences are a window on what it is like for millions and
millions who still suffer every day for want of clean water. So far, World Vision has drilled two boreholes in Kpalang, but neither was successful. The hard rock in the area makes the task of finding water especially difficult.
The drilling team will keep trying. World Vision is committed to the global effort to provide clean water for all—millions of children like Amina deserve nothing less.
About the author
James Addis is the Senior Editor for World Vision Magazine. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Parts of this article were reprinted with permission from World Vision Magazine.
About World Vision
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. In 2005, 87 percent of World Vision’s total revenue was used to directly benefit the poor. For more information, visit the World Vision website at www.worldvision.org.