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How far would you go to get water?

Ida Bere, Zimbabwe. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/OxfamAUS

We don’t have to go far to get water here in New Zealand. We can just turn on the kitchen tap, the bathroom tap, the outdoor hose, pop to the dairy, open our mouths during one of Auckland’s notorious downpours, the options are endless. None of them really involve a huge amount of effort, and all of them are, most of the time, safe.

Others around the world aren’t so lucky. In developing countries, women and children, mostly, are spending huge amounts of time each day fetching something that literally falls from the sky. And the average amount of water they use each day is merely the same amount of water used in one flush of a Western toilet.

Most of the water that these women and children collect is incredibly dirty and unsafe for consumption – in fact, nearly two billion people around the world have to face the tough decision between drinking dirty water that could make them sick, and not drinking at all. A lot of the time, they take the risk in pursuit of hydration. You would do the same, wouldn’t you? How far would you go to get water?

Walk nine hours?

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/OxfamAUS

Ida, from Zimbabwe, is one of the most incredible mothers you’ll ever meet. Every day she wakes at 4am to make the first of three trips to ensure her, her husband and their six children have enough water. Each trip is an hour and a half one way, meaning she spends a total of nine hours each day fetching water.

“At times when the river is not flowing and the water is just stagnant, I take my hoe and dig by the river bed. I dig in the sand so that water comes out and I scoop that water.”

Put it before education?

“My girls are school-going age, they need to read, do their homework and concentrate on their schoolwork. But because they have to do these trips to fetch water, they don’t have enough time to do their homework.”

The countless hours spent traipsing to collect water takes time from each day that should be spent working or learning — this entrenches the cycle of poverty.

“The time that we are wasting walking up and down to fetch water is productive time that is wasted.”

Fetch the same stuff that people and animals bathe and toilet in?

Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/OxfamAUS

“It’s not safe water, because at the river, you find people upriver will be having their baths, doing their laundry – and I fetch water down river.

“I see human waste flowing along the river. I just push it aside and continue fetching my water… that human waste is not good for water consumption. But I have no choice, that’s the only source of water.”

The contaminated water makes Ida’s children sick very often.

“They have ‘running stomachs’, diarrhoea, due to drinking that unsafe water.”

But you and Oxfam are stepping in, and are fundraising to build a borehole. Ida believes the construction of a borehole - a deep hole with a hand pump in the top used to extract water from the ground - will effectively solve her community’s water issues. Boreholes are fairly expensive to construct and maintain, but they supply ample high quality water year round.

Go without for days at a time?

In eleven-year-old Evelyn’s drought-declared village in rural Kenya, a fuel-powered generator would fill the solitary 24,000-litre water tank once every eight days. After two to four hours, all the water in the tank would have been used. Families like Evelyn’s only had water access for two hours every eight days.

Photo: Nichole Sobecki/Panos/OxfamAUS

“When there is water in my village, life flows. It feeds our animals, and keeps us well. And when we are healthy we can go to school, and learn, and grow.”

Once families had used up the clean water they got from the tank – what they obtained from the water tank usually lasted only a day or two – they’d get whatever they could from the nearby saltwater lake, or by digging holes in the dry river bed and extracting the water from there.

Choose it over health?

Photo: Nichole Sobecki/Panos/OxfamAUS

As a last resort, people in Evelyn’s community would drink from a nearby lake that’s highly saline, alkaline, contains high levels of fluoride. It is riddled with algae, sediment, faeces, the remains of dead animals, crystallised salt and rubbish. Drinking it can cause severe illnesses – vomiting, diarrhoea, skin and eye infections, dehydration, bone deformities, joint swelling and pain, and dental fluorosis – but people would turn to this supply if they really needed it. This crisis forced people to make incredibly tough decisions between water and health.

“Every day the sun takes more and more water for us, leaving only bad water that not even our animals will drink. Even they know it means death.”

But you and Oxfam stepped in. Together with our partners, we installed a solar-powered water system which has increased the community’s access to clean water from once every eight days to once every three days.

We also provided training in maintaining and managing the water system, and our partners drilled boreholes and installed new tanks to further water provision for the community.

Photo: Nichole Sobecki/Panos/OxfamAUS


Water, sanitation and hygiene underpin many of our poverty-fighting development projects. We always work with local people, ensuring that they lead our developments based on what they believe the best solution for them and their community is. In 2015/16, we provided 5.4 million people with improved access to clean water, and we’re still working to reach more and more people in need.

Read more about our water and sanitation work in the Pacific