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Photography - Issue 6

My Life by Water

Introduction by Patrick Steel

A 2019 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN found that around 785 million people, or one in ten of the world’s population, lack access to clean water.

Turn the Tide: the State of the World’s Water, a report by WaterAid published in 2021, collated the latest statistics on access to clean water, and found a tangible impact on the daily lives of individuals living in areas affected by climate breakdown.

The situation is worst in the world’s 47 least developed countries, according to the WHO, where one in two healthcare facilities do not have basic drinking water. Worldwide, one in four healthcare facilities have no water services on-site, impacting two billion people. Not only does this place health workers at risk, but it potentially leaves them having to identify and collect from alternative sources of water, taking critical time away from patient care.

Lack of access to clean water is a feminist issue, disproportionately affecting women and girls. According to the UN, every year women and girls collectively spend an estimated 200 million hours - or around 23,000 years - walking, just to collect water. When so much time is spent collecting water, it prevents women and girls from gaining an education or earning a living. Globally, one in five girls of primary-school age are not in school, compared to one in six boys - and collecting water is one of the reasons behind this statistic. The elderly and people with disabilities are also disproportionately affected by water scarcity.

Agriculture is put in jeopardy by the effects of climate breakdown, with once-fertile land becoming prone to drought and desertification, lakes and rivers dry up, and sources of water for irrigation becoming less reliable. This in turn affects the food chain, as crops are ruined, local markets are bare, and local producers are unable to make a living.

And all of these factors are leading to climate migration on an unprecedented scale: the UN predicts that by 2030, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will force between 24 million to 700 million people to leave their homes.

WaterAid is calling for high-income countries to fulfil their responsibility to provide new and additional climate finance. But mitigation is not enough: governments and international funding bodies must also urgently prioritise investment in adaptation plans, with local and national climate-resilience planning underpinning that investment.

Susmita Mandal Jana, 22, lives in the West Bengal area of India with her husband, two-year-old child, and mother in law. Susmita used to collect water from a tube well - a water well in which a long tube or pipe is bored into an underground aquifer - but since it dried up a year ago, she has to walk for nearly half an hour to reach another water source several times a day. “The water quality is not good,” she says. (Photograph WaterAid / Ranita Roy).

“The water from the tube well was much better in taste, but it has dried now. This water that I collect now is salty.” What scares her the most is the rickety bridge over the canal that she has to cross while carrying heavy water containers. The one hour round trip leaves little time to earn extra money with other work: “I have a sewing machine and can stitch clothes and contribute to the family income, but all this leaves me with little time.” (Photograph WaterAid / Ranita Roy).

‘With age, my water problems have increased too. Many times I don’t have energy to carry water from such a distance and the body ache is constant.’

— Gita Maity

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