The burden of collecting water while pregnant

Written by Libby Plumb, Senior Communications Advisor, WaterAid America

Working in the international development sector, I am surrounded by smart, passionate people: people who believe that we can end poverty—and that it starts with access to clean water and toilets for women and girls.

As a mother of two healthy kids, I know that having kids is hard work. What mom doesn’t feel like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders 24/7?

For millions of mothers in the developing world, though, that weight is far more than metaphoric. For them, the threat of maternal mortality is real, good health can be hard to achieve, and the need  to walk for miles in search of water and to carry their heavy water containers home a constant one—pregnant or not.

WaterAid Photo
Photo Courtesy: WaterAid/John Spaull

When my son was a little over a year old, I was fortunate to visit WaterAid’s water, sanitation and hygiene programs in northern Ghana. As a new mom missing my own child, I was the first to coo over all the babies. But what moved me most was realizing what a grueling life their mothers lead.

One woman I spoke with was still collecting water from a muddy dugout despite being eight months pregnant.

“It is hard to collect water while pregnant,” Atndtoma told me. “My shoulders, wrists and chest hurt. I will have to carry on collecting water until I deliver. When the baby is born I will need water to wash him or her with. I think that for the first two weeks after I give birth my family will fetch water for me, but after that I will have to come again myself.”

Like millions of moms, Atndtoma had no choice but to risk her health and that of her unborn child. She needed water for her family to survive.  Yet a full jerry can of water can weigh up to 40lb–the weight of a four-year-old child in the US. It’s no wonder that collecting and carrying water while pregnant can cause difficulties in pregnancy and other reproductive health consequences, such as uterine prolapse. What’s more, women who lack safe water are more prone to water-related illnesses linked to low birth weight and slow child growth including hookworm infestation.

Atndtoma knew all too well the risks she would be exposing her child to when he or she started to drink water. When I asked if the baby would also have to drink water from the dugout, a source shared with cows and donkeys, she replied:

“I have to give the water to my children as there is none other available.  Sometimes the children get stomach ache or malaria and I have to take them to hospital, but it is expensive and I don’t always have enough money.  “Sometimes the illnesses are very serious and sometimes some of the children in the village die.  A four-month-old baby died some time ago.”

In the year 2000, the world came together at the UN Millennium Summit to agree on a visionary declaration for the world’s development. Later dubbed the Millennium Development Goals, this vision includes a commitment to cut in half the number of people living without safe water or toilets, and reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio. It’s far more than development jargon: it’s a commitment to improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and providing expectant mothers like Atndtoma with the basic services and accurate hygiene information vital for reducing maternal mortality rates and meeting global goals for ending preventable child deaths.

As the 2015 deadline for achieving these goals comes near, it’s clear that we are making progress, but that we still have work to be done. Often, I am reminded of Atndtoma and how fortunate I was in my own pregnancies.  While exhausting for moms everywhere, how could I complain about something like having to climb a few flights of stairs when pregnant moms like Atndtoma didn’t even have clean water to drink?

Cover Photo Credit: WaterAid/Andrew Esiebo

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Category: Health
Tagged with: Africa    clean water    Gender Equality    Global Health    Maternal Health    Newborn Health    Rights    wash    WaterAid    Women's Empowerment