Updated: Jan 6
Let’s play a game of word association.
When I say “global warming,” the picture that comes to mind is probably one of a polar bear stranded on a melting glacier. When I say “plastic pollution,” the images it conjures up is probably a turtle struggling with swallowed plastic in the ocean.
The devastating bushfires in Australia; exhausted koalas being rescued and given water to drink.
When I utter the phrase COVID19; an anonymous crowd of facemasks.
Man's destructive impact on nature is documented worldwide through iconic images - photographs that move us, remain engraved in our minds, and play on the various emotional strings that compel us to share the image, bringing it to the attention of others.
But for the water crisis, this isn’t as straightforward.
The true cost of water
Of all the chemical compounds in the world, water is the simplest - H20.
But for over 790 million people who live without access to improved water supply, water is no simple matter at all. Millions of people consume their drinking water from exposed, contaminated water sources as their only choice and the water are unworthy of drinking.
I came face to face with this crisis in East Africa years ago and since then I have not been able to let go of the subject. In a number of unconventional journeys, I have documented hundreds of people dealing with the lack of the simplest and most basic resource - water.
My eyes water
My first encounter with the water crisis took place during a severe drought deep in Uganda's rural Karamoja region. Far from the eyes of tourists, humanitarian organizations, and government officials, I found a catastrophe.
Without prior preparation, I was exposed to experiences that still haunt me from time to time.
Skinny older women who want to die, mothers who couldn’t breastfeed because they haven't eaten for a week, and the constant crying of hoarse babies. Instead of being able to consume the natural occurring milk through their mother's body, they drink contaminated mud that their tiny bodies cannot bear.
This is not a science fiction movie, it is a painful reality for a lot of people.
In those cursed moments, I realized how much this crisis is in need of a face, a voice , an illustration that speaks to more than simply statistics and numbers. The crisis requires an icon that will push us to care and to promote change for the sake of those who need it, even if they don't live up our street.
Over the years, it has become the center of my creativity, to give a crisis like this a face.
To do so, I had to understand the subject in depth and not rely on a single encounter. So I joined a humanitarian organization digging wells all over Africa and began learning from the different communities the water crisis impacts.
Going down stream
In Uganda, I accompanied barefoot children marching day after day to collect water from smelly mud puddles.
In Ethiopia, I met mothers who buried their children because of illnesses caused by contaminated drinking water. In South Sudan, I heard from various communities about the worsening climate situation, causing water sources to change and dry up completely.
In Tanzania, I met entire villages with no access to water. Their only solution was to dig in dry rivers, hoping to find water.
There, I met 13 years old, Amina, who is in charge of fetching water daily for her entire family. Every morning at sunrise, she would carry five empty jerry cans to the nearest river.
The river, however, is dry and parched, with absolutely no water visible at the surface. Instead, she has to get to ground and start digging holes. These holes would then eventually start to fill with water.
Amina then begins to scoop the water from the holes into a bucket until all are sufficiently filled. This entire process can take her over 2 hours.
To support her family, she repeats this laborious process twice a day, every day - trapped in this loop, with no time to go to school and gain an education.
Amina's story, and her barriers to opportunity, is one of many examples where women and girls around the world remain trapped by circumstance
The significance of the lack of access to water is broader than its implications for health alone. Beyond the obvious aspect of survival, the implications impact communities on an economic, social and educational level.
I was amazed to find out how much time women and children "invest" in a day in search of water. After all, the search itself takes hours and does not include just walking to the water source - the journey often unsafe - as there are places where long queues of women are waiting for their turn to pump.
According to the UN, women and children spend around 200 million hours every day around the world in search of water. If that time was channeled into education, home economics, leisure and family development, this crisis may be already behind us.
Cyclone Idai and political water
We are right when we say water is LIFE. Water plays a significant role in every area of life.
However, the discovery that water also has a political side was particularly disturbing for me.
In March 2019, the African continent got hit by one of the most severe weather disasters in the southern hemisphere. Cyclone Idai was one of the worst tropical cyclones that affected Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, causing catastrophic damage in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.
I arrived at Beira, Mozambique a few weeks after the devastating Cyclone Idai hit East Africa to cover the humanitarian efforts.
One day we were driving through the city and passed the neighborhood of Praia-Nova, or rather what was left of it. Looking through the window I was shocked by the state of this place, and to my surprise, I saw no aid workers there at all, only people in despair.
I learned that Praia Nova is an illegal fishing village that already looked like a disaster zone before, and the cyclone caused it to go from bad to worse. Because the government considers this settlement illegal, the residents did not receive any aid neither from the government itself nor from international aid organizations who work through the government.
However, what residents in Praia-Nova feared the most, was the situation around drinking water. Infrastructure was damaged, wells contaminated, entire fields flooded leaving people with no water to drink.
The politicisation of the water crisis was evident, with the Mozambican government purposefully leaving residents like those in Praia-Nova off priority lists for support. Similarly, the many relief organizations that arrived did not have immediate solutions and were hamstrung by government guidelines.
Time is running out
The water crisis shouldn't be seen as a war or a conflict. Nor is it an immediate disaster that suddenly came out of nowhere.
The water crisis is one with clear solutions.
We already have a number of sustainable answers to treat and manage water. We practice them well in our own countries:
Rain water harvesting
Regional Water management
Water Carriers, Dams & Reservoirs
We will never go thirsty or have to drink bad water - but why do we let others do?
''Hello? anybody out there?''
As the years pass, I find myself repeating statistics like a broken record.
And in my constant attempts to create an ''icon'' for the water crisis - an image that will move us to act - I've so far failed.
We all prefer to help the turtle choking on plastic, or the polar bear alongside the melting iceberg. We forget the devastating impact nature has on humans too.
People who are living out in remote communities; voiceless, helpless and isolated.
They are also an integral part of nature - of our fabric - and we need to fight for them.
It took only three months to plan, drill, and complete the construction of a solar-water tower with a dozen taps throughout Amina's village.
I got back to Iyolie to document the change in the village for Innovation: Africa - the NGO who made it happen. However, I was much more interested in finding Amina and perceiving the transformation in her own life.
She was there, wearing that same one-piece turquoise hijab, this time with a green flowery Kitenge (a colorful cotton fabric).
I don't know if I was dehydrated or full of inspiration, but something about Amina seemed poetic: Her appearance resembled a river of water, a river no longer dry. Waves flowed down from the fabric and watered the dry land, causing it to bloom and green.
I had to capture what I was observing,
It became clear to me - Amina is an icon.
Amina is still in charge of getting water for her family, but the water is now clean, the tap is nearby, and it doesn't take her very long.
So from the tap, she continues to school.
I walked with her that day.
A way forward
On the way to school, I asked her if she had dreams. You know, the classic "What would you want to be when you grow up?"
And since I've asked this question many times before, I was ready for the same three common answers I get from East African youths: a teacher, a nurse, or a pilot.
My ears were unprepared for Amina's answer when she said she wanted to become an engineer, a WATER engineer! I started laughing. I couldn't wish for a better answer.
After seeing the drilling trucks come in, reaching water, constructing the water tower and watching her community celebrate - Amina was inspired by the change her village went through.
She also mentioned Lerian - the brilliant country director of Innovation: Africa in Tanzania, who brought the news to the community and supervised the entire project until water came out from the tap.
Lerian remains a Tanzanian role model for many including Amina.
By the time we reached Amina's school, her answer already made a perfect sense:
It was water all along that trapped her in place and water that freed her to dream.
The basis of all forms of life and the right of every living being - WATER.
With much respect to foreign humanitarian work, I believe that governments are the accountable one for providing water for their people.
Images in this story reveal the struggle of specific regions and do not represent these entire countries or the continent.
My story took place in Africa but the water crisis is a global problem, not an African issue alone.
Special thanks to Hagar Siboni |