The Cost of Water

March 21, 2012

By Matt Palmer

My first trip to Kenya in 2006 was filled with so many surprises and revelations. My knowledge of the country deepened with every new connection, every story that I heard. Like most people, before going to Kenya, what I knew of Africa came from headlines and news reports.

When we made the long dusty, bumpy journey from Nairobi to Litein, in the western tea region that edges the Rift Valley, I recall seeing young children walking on the road alone carrying sacks of food on their heads, or carrying water.

Access to clean water would become a recurring theme as we traveled around. For us Westerners it was easy; buy bottled water when we wanted it. For the locals, buying bottled water is not affordable. At the children’s home in Litein, there is a water tap outside the kitchen. The water was not treated, and kids were drinking from it. They are lucky to have good access to water, even though the parasites often strike them with all sorts of ill effects.

In the countryside, most people have to walk to the local water well or river. It can be miles, and supplying water for a family is a full-time job. Sadly, mothers and young girls mostly become the water fetchers, often meaning the girls miss or forego school completely.

It was during our visit to Kisumu, on the edge of Lake Victoria, the largest fresh water lake in Africa, now infested with Nile Perch, that I met the Sister pictured above at a our guest house. We were on our way out for the morning and she was sitting in the lobby, looking so beautiful in the natural light streaming in through the front door and the windows. I sat down to talk with her while I waited for my party. She was from a convent in the countryside and she had come to Kisumu for the funeral of her brother.

He was a family man and a hard worker. But, like so many people in the developing world, traveled to collect water every day. In his case, his journey was ten miles each way from home to the local river. He would gather the water in buckets then make the arduous trek home. It was on his way back home with the daily supply of water for his family, that this woman’s brother died in a tragic crash. The brakes on his bicycle failed.

This woman was so kind and gentle, yet so matter of fact about her brother’s tragedy. Being a nun, she related how this was a story that is oft-repeated. People dying needlessly from gathering life-sustaining resources. As we were ending our conversation, I asked permission to take her picture, and she immediately agreed that I should.

Tomorrow is World Water Day. But our attention to water issues must get more than one day a year. Water is our most precious resource. It sustains our bodies, grows our food, and in many cases, is essential in the production of energy. Yet, consider how often we take water for granted in our daily lives.

The world’s oceans face innumerable pressures from multiple sources and impacts. The ocean’s are stressed, yet in order to deal with our increasing need for energy, developers, governments, and even environmental groups propose that we industrialize the ocean with offshore wind farms, and tidal power. World Water Day provides an opportunity to consider the impacts of our choices, and to work towards access to water for all species that exist on our planet.

The Atlantic has a powerful photo essay examining water issues around the world. Some of the pictures are disturbing, but being aware of the challenges we face, gives us greater power and potential to find solutions. Many of those solutions exist in our daily lives. Like flushing the toilet – “If it’s yellow, let it mellow”.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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