World Water Day: Clean Water is Only the Beginning

Written by Suzy Vickers, Public Relations Manager, WaterAid

​This morning 13-year-old Ze got up and went to school. This might not sound very remarkable, 13-year-olds girls go to school all the time, don’t they? For Ze, this was a truly momentous day.

I met Ze a year ago in her remote village of Antohobe in Madagascar. Perched a mile up in the highlands, our Landover lurched from side to side as we climbed the steep dirt tracks to her home. I could see why the village name means ‘a place with a view’.

Ze struggling to lift 40 pounds of water on her head and walk back home; WaterAid/ Abbie Trayler-Smith
Ze struggling to lift 40 pounds of water on her head and walk back home; WaterAid/ Abbie Trayler-Smith

When I arrived I was immediately struck by two young girls – Solo and Ze. Bright, chatty and confident, these best friends were eager to show me where they lived. They had few belongings, just one toy between them, a cherished doll they delighted in playing with. Their home was a simple two story building, with livestock kept on the first floor.

Conversation took a more somber tone when they explained their daily chores to me. These young teenage girls had to worry about more than cleaning their bedrooms – they had to collect water, up to five times a day. They had to walk down a treacherous trail surrounded by spiky cactuses, to a small muddy pond full of insects and algae.

Just six foot in diameter, this ‘spring’ served the 400-strong population of the village for all their water needs – washing, drinking, cooking, bathing and cleaning. I could see movement under the surface. One word – ‘tsingala’ – is used to describe the plethora of insects living beneath.

I wince as Ze lifts up the huge 40-pound jerry can full of water.

“We fall down quite often, I sprained my ankle two months ago. It really hurt, I couldn’t walk. I was crying and I had to crawl back up the path to the village, when my parents saw me they helped me into our house. Sometimes I still get pain there. After the first time I couldn’t walk for one month”. – Ze

When I met Ze last year she had been forced to drop out of school – her five daily hikes to collect water meant she simply did not have time to go any more. Water collection is seen as a domestic task, so it commonly falls to the girls in the family. I was shocked to see such an energetic bright young girl stopped in her tracks and committed to such back-breaking chores. Her future cut short all because she didn’t have access to clean water.

Ze back in her classroom at school; WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala
Ze back in her classroom at school; WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Over 748 million people in the world still don’t have access to clean water – for many, many girls their lives are just how Ze’s was. They too spend hours every day collecting heavy jerry cans of dirty water. This water can be very dangerous to drink, it frequently makes people sick, meaning they are forced to take time off school, or worse. In Ze’s village, sickness and diarrhea were rife. Globally, it is estimated that over 700 girls die every day from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.

Solo and Ze now have clean water in their village. They no longer spend hours every day carrying heavy jerry cans of water, stumbling down dangerous paths.

“There is lots of fresh, clean water coming from the pump. It’s so easy to get water here. Thank you for making it happen.” – Ze

WaterAid worked with local partner organization Association Miarintsoa (AMI) to install clean water in the village. A deep electrical well pump was installed, hitting water after seven long days of drilling. Ze’s father has been trained as a local caretaker and is in charge of maintaining the water pump.

This village is moving towards Community-led Total Sanitation – this means toilets are being built, showers are being constructed and people are being educated about hygiene. Facilities are also being extended to include Ze’s school.

Last month Ze was able to return to school. A truly triumphant day for her. And real proof of the power of clean water. Her future is now alive again. Clean water isn’t the end of Ze’s story though, it’s only the beginning.

Sign our petition today so that more young girls like Ze can realize the dream of clean water and return to school.

Ze’s teacher Chantel is happy to have Ze back at school; WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala
Ze’s teacher Chantel is happy to have Ze back at school; WaterAid/ Ernest Randriarimalala

Visit to learn more about how clean water impacts women’s and girls’ lives.

Cover image: Solo and Ze celebrate clean water arriving in their village; WaterAid / Ernest Randriarimalala

The Dry Spell is Over for Women Looking to Lead


Laos runs on water.  Literally.  The self-proclaimed “Battery of Southeast Asia” will soon host 72 dams throughout its one thousand rivers.  While this energy export might benefit the Lao economy, the electricity from these dams rarely reaches the Lao people because it is sent to China, Thailand and Vietnam.  This leaves the Lao people, who depend on the rivers to eat, clean and prosper, left in the wake of construction teams.  But a new program in Laos offering women and girls scholarships to study environmental engineering will hopefully bring new leadership that will greatly benefit the local population.

Hydroelectric development comes at a very high price for Lao people.  First, entire villages are displaced due to dam construction.  In my travels throughout Luang Prabang Province I have seen the roadside beginnings of homes and storefronts only to look down the nearest valley and see dam construction surrounded by an abandoned village.  Villages naturally form around water sources because the rivers serve as sources of food, hygiene and transportation.  But when a dam location is decided, entire villages need to seek higher ground and completely reestablish a way of life.

Dam construction will also severely interrupt fish migration patterns on the Mekong River.  Recently the Mekong River Commission met to discuss how the potential Don Sahong dam in Southern Laos will disrupt migratory fish patterns and threaten food security in the region.  The Mekong River begins in China and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, therefore millions of people could be impacted by these decisions.

But soon there will be new individuals involved in making environmental decisions because the Asian Development Bank has created a scholarship program for Lao women to study civil and environmental engineering.  The program finances a 4-year undergraduate degree at the National University of Laos and the Vocational Institution of Technology in Vientiane, provides a mentor for ongoing support and runs a capacity building program to promote gender equality in the workplace.  Twenty-six scholarships were awarded this year in the pilot program and all 26 women passed their examination to move on to the second year of study.

This success is not a surprise because women are already the water engineers of their villages.  Collecting water for cooking and cleaning is deemed “women’s work.”  Often when I visit schools I see women and girls walking, quite a ways from the actual village, with a bamboo branch over the back of their shoulders and two heavy buckets of water hanging from either end. To keep their families healthy they have determined the best locations to get water and make the trip multiple times a day to that source.

Additionally, Laos has a vast network of rivers but nowhere in the country can anyone drink the tap water.  In cities such as Luang Prabang, trucks drive around daily with 5 gallon (19L) bottles for sale to homes and businesses.  But these trucks are rare in villages and it is left up to the women to prepare the water in order to prevent disease transmission while cooking and cleaning.  However organizations such as the People to People Project are working to ease the burden off the women in rural villages.  The People to People Project works with the villagers to find a clean water source, pipe the water and build a reservoir.

But in the near future, thanks to the ADB’s scholarship program, women water engineers will be more prevalent at construction sites and in villages.  These female engineers understand the burdens Lao women face when relocating and finding water for their families.  Therefore women leaders will make decisions with both the Lao economy and citizens in mind. Hopefully support for this program will continue to flow and Lao women will recharge the “Battery of Southeast Asia” with justice, health and equality.

Celebrating Healthy Mothers on World Water Day

Picture Courtesy: Pippa Ranger/Department for International Development (DFID)
Picture Courtesy: Pippa Ranger/Department for International Development (DFID)

Today, March 22, is World Water Day. This international day to celebrate water has evolved over the years, since it was first recognized by the UN in 1993. It is only fitting that World Water Day shares a place in the same month as International Women’s Day, celebrated every year on March 8, as the two are so intertwined. The presence and quality of water plays a role in women’s lives throughout the world like no other resource. It can mean educational opportunities, job opportunities, healthy families, or none of that.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) have important impacts on many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including poverty and hunger, child deaths, and environmental sustainability. Notably, WASH impacts maternal health in significant ways, as well. MDG target 5A seeks to “reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio,” and investing and supporting WASH programs can help do just that.

While poor hygiene at childbirth is the most obvious factor in maternal deaths related to WASH, there are other ways it influences maternal health. Waterborne illness during pregnancy reduces good nutrition and inhibits the immune system. Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) like hookworm are associated with anemia during pregnancy. Poor water storage encourages mosquito breeding and transmission of malaria; and the daily back-breaking drudgery of carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads is especially hard on pregnant women. WASH can even influence women’s childbirth choices: if health facilities do not have running water or offer toilet facilities, women sometimes choose to give birth at home, increasing risks of potential complications.

Picture Courtesy: Robert Yates / Department for International Development (DFID)
Picture Courtesy: Robert Yates / Department for International Development (DFID)

More and more countries are recognizing the linkages between WASH and healthy mothers, like Malawi. Last year, President Joyce Banda created the President’s Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood as part of her commitment to improving Malawi’s maternal health status. As part of this initiative, Freshwater International is stepping in to provide WASH facilities at the maternal waiting shelters (MWS) for mothers waiting to deliver and training healthcare personnel in hygiene practices.

Traditionally, maternal health programs and WASH programs are performed separately. To have real and lasting impact on the health of mothers, it will take a new way of thinking about these programs and working together to achieve mutual outcomes. Let’s not be stuck inside the same boxes in looking at women’s issues around the world! WASH is essential for healthy pregnancies and childbirth.

On this World Water Day, let’s recognize the important role that WASH has in healthy women, healthy mothers, and healthy children, and let’s make sure that all women and children around the world have access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. It really is a matter of life or death.

For more information:

What do you mean, women aren’t equal?

By Alanna Imbach, WaterAid America

After an hour of banging my head against the roof of our silver SUV with every jolting bump of the dusty red dirt highway leading from Bilwi, Nicaragua to the capital city of Managua, I was more than ready to abandon the car when we arrived yesterday at the home of Don Sabino and Doña Yolanda.

Nestled atop a hill overlooking miles of lush green forests, there was only one other house within sight. Yet Doña Yolanda’s yard was filled with people. 12 of them, to be exact: all hard at work drilling holes in drainage pipes, digging ditches and clearing space for the new toilet that they were learning how to install as part of their first day of water and sanitation job skills training with the international non-profit, WaterAid.

I came to Nicaragua with WaterAid this week in part to observe World Water Day the way that it was meant to be observed—through the eyes of some of the nearly 800 million people who live without access to water that is safe enough to drink. What I saw within hours of arriving at the remote Caribbean coast is a revolution of the most exciting kind.

Photo Credit: WaterAid
Photo Credit: WaterAid

As I approached the bustling scene, the first person to catch my eye was Doña Yolanda, bent over in concentration as she drilled one-inch drainage holes by hand into piles of grey PVC piping. While her husband held them steady and warmly encouraged her to keep up the great work, the instructor kept careful watch in a bright pink tank top and perfectly matching eye shadow—a strong, confident woman who was surely half Yolanda’s age.

All around us, the scene repeated itself: we were at an active toilet construction site, and women of all ages were digging, shoveling, drilling and sweating it out just like the men alongside them. It was a picture perfect sight as far as gender equality and inclusion are concerned, and I couldn’t help but wonder: was it really like this all the time, or did they know ahead of time that we were coming with cameras and journalists in tow?

Like any nosey person would, I started showering them with questions. What do the men think about you working on water and sanitation construction projects? Do they genuinely take direction from you, as a woman and as an instructor? And to the men: What has changed since women have started building toilets and wells? Do women get paid the same as men for the work that they do?

From the looks on the faces of Don Sabino and his colleague Don Juan, I must have sounded like an alien.

“It’s the same work,” they said, looking mutually confused. “Of course they get paid the same. It didn’t use to be this way, but WaterAid helped us see that it’s important for women to be involved, and they are also very good at it…aren’t women paid the same in your country, too?”

“No,” I told them. “We’re not.”

“That’s a shame,” said Don Juan, shaking his head. “All of us here, we believe that everyone is equal, and everyone has a role to play in making our community as safe, healthy and dignified as can be. That’s what we are doing here today.”

It was his house, and by the end of the week, he and Doña Yolanda will be the proud owners of the very first pour-flush toilet in town.

This Friday, March 21st, be sure to join the #WaterAidNica Twitter chat hosted by @WaterAidAmerica and @SocialGoodMoms.

Cover image courtesy of WaterAid