The average American uses a hundred gallons of water every day; Aylito Binayo uses two and a half if she is lucky. Binayo lives in the village of Foro, in the Konso district of Ethiopia. Like nearly 900 million other people in the world, she does not have access to clean water. Three times a day, every day, she walks to the Toiro River to fetch water, as do all the other women in her village. Like most girls, she dropped out of school at eight years old so she could begin collecting water. Very young boys fetch water only up to the age of seven or eight. Fetching water is women’s work.
National Geographic Magazine’s April issue focuses entirely on water: its scarcity, its inhabitants, the part it plays in rituals, and the wars that will be made over it in the near future. One article is a reminder that many issues that do not appear to be about women on the surface are women’s issues nonetheless. The piece – The Burden of Thirst – is available on the National Geographic Magazine website, along with photos and video commentary.
The need to fetch water for the family is the main reason very few women in Konso have attended school. “When we are born, we know that we will have a hard life,” Aylito Binayo says. If she is able to access it, she will carry 12 gallons of water—a hundred pounds—on her back when she walks home from the river. The water is not treated, so waterborne disease is rampant. Even the health center in Konso’s capital lacks clean water. Binayo washes her hands with water “maybe once a day,” she says, and washes her body occasionally. She washes clothes once a year. I’ve been taking my water for granted.
Bringing clean water close to people’s homes is key to improving health outcomes and uplifting women. It would mean girls can go to school and choose a better life. Wells are the best hope some villages have. If they are installed near the river, the water will still be far away, but it is more reliable, cleaner, and easier to extract. Yet many villages where wells are feasible do not have them. In many countries, as in Ethiopia, water is the responsibility of each district, and local governments have little expertise or money. “People who live in slums and rural areas with no access to drinking water are the same people who don’t have access to politicians,” says Paul Faeth, president of Global Water Challenge, a consortium of 24 nongovernmental groups based in Washington, D.C.
WaterAid, one of the world’s largest water-and-sanitation charities, is trying to bring water to some of the villages of Konso. WaterAid asks the community to form a WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) committee of seven people—four of whom must be women. The committee works with WaterAid to plan projects and involve the village in construction and maintenance. The Konso villagers, for instance, own and control their pumps. At the health center, WaterAid installed gutters on the roofs of the buildings to catch rainwater. The water is now being treated and used in the health center.
By March, WaterAid planned to install a motorized pump to push water up the mountain to a reservoir. Gravity would carry it back down to taps in local villages—including Foro. The village would have two community taps and a shower house for bathing. If things went as planned, Aylito Binayo would have a faucet with safe water practically right outside her door.
“I don’t know whether to believe it will work. We are on top of a mountain, and the water is down below,” she says. “But if it works, I will be so happy, so very happy.”