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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

Gita Maity, 63, collects dirty water from the bank of the pond near her house in West Bengal, India. One of the oldest residents in the area, Gita used to fetch water for her family from a tube well but when it fell into disrepair, she had to find an alternate source. This means a trek of one and a half hours every day to collect water for basic household requirements. And this is not all. Gita has to make another trek to a pond for bathing. She says: “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.” On bad days, Gita’s daughter-in-law helps her fetch water.

‘Since the centre opened in 2010 we haven’t had water here. We are obliged to go and collect water. Because of this problem we can’t make sure we meet all the hygiene standards.’

— Salimata Dagnogo

Salimata Dagnogo, 32, the matron of the Talo Health Centre in Mali, collecting water which she needs for her work. Salimata has practiced at Talo for eight years and faces big challenges in her role without the availability of clean water, and she worries about the impact this has on the exposure to infectious diseases. She says: “Since the centre opened in 2010 we haven’t had water here. We are obliged to go and collect water. Because of this problem we can’t make sure we meet all the hygiene standards. It can happen that a pregnant woman comes here at about three in the morning and the person accompanying her is an old person, so this person cannot go and collect water from the pump. So then I have to take off my gloves and go and collect water to do my job, and really this is very hard.” (Photograph WaterAid / Guilhem Alandry).

Ansar Ali, 72, carries his own safe drinking water. He lives in Satkhira, Bangladesh, where water is very salty and contaminated with iron and arsenic. The salinity threatens soil quality, crop yields, coastal biodiversity and the health of communities. Regularly drinking water with high salt levels causes health problems such as hypertension. Communities may then risk disease by drinking from unprotected surface water sources, and have to walk long distances in search of alternative clean water sources. When it rains too much, the saline water from the local farms and ponds overflows into the villagers’ house boundaries and kills their plants. WaterAid, supported by partners including Severn Trent, is working in this community to improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. (Photograph WaterAid / Drik Picture Library Limited / Farzana Hossen).

Village women from Dacope in Bangladesh, walk on cracked ground towards a pond to collect water. Floods, cyclones and droughts exacerbated by climate change make it extremely difficult to reach everyone with clean water, toilet and hygiene services. Bangladesh is a low-lying country, which, according to research by the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, UK, could see sea levels rise along its coastline by up to 1.5 metres by the end of the century, making it particularly vulnerable to climate breakdown. In the south of Bangladesh, sea level rise can lead to saltwater intrusion on land used for crops. It can also seep into groundwater supplies, making them undrinkable. This process of salinisation destroys all vegetation and other organisms living in the soil, transforming fertile and productive land into barren land. It is also detrimental to human health as drinking water salinity is connected to cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. (Photograph WaterAid / Abir Abdullah).

‘I am passing a lot of time nowadays looking for water. Usually we spend about two hours one way to go and get water.’

— Leticia Jesayu

Leticia Jesayu, 55, walks across a dried landscape to collect water. Leticia lives in Puloichon, La Sabana, Colombia, with her husband and seven children. She says: “Before this place used to be very green here. There were trees and grass everywhere. But as more and more people came to live here, and people started to chop down trees in order to get their own piece of land, the place started to look more and more barren like it does now. Decades ago the rains were very different as well. The downpours aren’t as strong anymore and they don’t come on time like they used to. I am passing a lot of time nowadays looking for water. Usually we spend about two hours one way to go and get water. Sometimes I hide the water halfway down the road we take and we go to look for it the next day. Because it is very heavy and tough for us to go and get the water so far, so this way it is a little bit easier.” (Photograph WaterAid / Keoma Zec).

Ncenekile Maziya, 60, fetches water from a dirty pond. She lives with her youngest daughter who has five children, at Libhuku community in Dvokodvweni constituency, Eswatini, and spends around two hours a day collecting water. She says: “My children and I have a serious challenge with access to clean water, even if we sometimes find water, we find it from unsafe sources that we share with livestock. When you get the water with the 20 litre bucket, it is not enough for one day’s activities like bathing, so we are sometimes forced to sleep without washing our bodies. The water we have is unsafe for consumption. We had an outbreak of diarrhoea last month as result of the use of unclean water in the area. There are children whom we have lost due to diarrhoea as a result of use of unclean water. We have lost some souls. If we could have water again, there is so much we can do, I would start farming my vegetables, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, beans and peanuts. The absence of water has killed all productivity. If there is water people live healthy and productive lives.” (Photograph WaterAid / Dennis Lupenga).

‘My children and I have a serious challenge with access to clean water, even if we sometimes find water, we find it from unsafe sources that we share with livestock.’

— Ncenekile Maziya

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in western Africa. The economy is heavily reliant on agriculture, with close to 80% of the active population employed in the sector. Of the population of 20.3 million, 40% are living below the poverty line and the government reports that a third of the rural population lives with food insecurity. Eveline Kabore, 45, lives in the village of Sablogo. While the village now has an accessible borehole, she used to collect water from a nearby river. The water was used for everything, including drinking, and often resulted in sickness. She says: “Since we got a borehole in our district, we don’t drink dregs water any more. I noticed that since then the cases of stomach aches, diarrhoea and vomiting have been significantly reduced. I guess this has a link with the use of the clean water collected from the borehole. The quality of our meals also depends on the water that we use for cooking. Water and food go together. Our harvest and food - we have them thanks to water.” (Photograph WaterAid / Basile Ouedraogo)

‘The quality of our meals also depends on the water that we use for cooking. Water and food go together.’

— Eveline Kabore

Francois Nikiema, 31, looks down into the dried up traditional well in the village of Yargho, Bazega province, Burkina Faso, where he lives with his wife and three children. He says: “When we have trouble finding water from the borehole, we go to the traditional wells. But what I also see there is that the wells themselves have problems during the hottest time of the year. The worst time is in April, when you have to turn around a lot to look for water. Sometimes you have to juggle with the little water you have or simply give up certain activities and needs like washing clothes or bathing. When we see how things are evolving, we know that tomorrow will not be easy. We can see that the availability of water is only weakening. Things are only getting worse every year. I think that the drying up of water is irreversible.” (Photograph WaterAid / Basile Ouedraogo)

Francois with the dried up tomato crops in his market garden. In Yargho, the rainy season generally runs from May to October, and the dry season is from October to April. The inhabitants make their living from agriculture, breeding, and small trade, but also from market gardening. It is currently estimated that there are more than a hundred market gardeners, who, every dry season, use the water from the dam with the help of motor pumps and pipes to produce off-season vegetables in fields around the dam. He says: “Surprisingly, this year the water in the dam began to decrease in December and completely dried up around 22 January 2021. Last year, it was around 16 February 2020 that the water was finished in the dam and two years ago, in 2019, it was around 11 March. This means that we are going backwards every year and the gap between the periods of drying up of the dam is only widening from year to year now. I no longer have any water to water my plants and to finish the production. This means that we have not gained anything. All my production - onions, tomato, aubergine, cabbage, courgette - dried out and burnt due to lack of water. It’s a big loss.” (Photograph WaterAid / Basile Ouedraogo).

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