Walking for water made its mark

March 22nd, 2012

I’ve never entertained the idea of getting a tattoo…until last year, at the age of 33, when I went to Mandera in north east Kenya during the height of the drought.

What I saw there shocked me.

People walking an average of 20 miles a day in 40°C just to go and fetch water. And this journey is one fraught with danger. Water is in such short supply that violence regularly breaks out at the few remaining wells – with many innocent women and children wounded or killed.

Most of the time, the water they get isn’t even clean. It’s water like this from a polluted, dirty, hand-dug well that’s infested with all kinds of visible things…worms, tadpoles, bugs:

Unsafe water like this kills 4,000 children every day…and it will continue. With climate change, the incidence of drought is increasing. People will continue to take desperate measures to get water – any water.

Practical Action is reducing the trek that people have to make to fetch water by rehabilitating shallow wells dug into seasonal river beds and building sand filters to purify the water further.


I spoke to Nadifa at one of the rehabilitated shallow wells who said she now only has to walk two kilometres to fetch water and feels much safer.

“The well helps my family so much. The water is good because it is fresh. I can drink it and use it for my cooking”.


This month, the UN announced that the international target to halve the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water has been met, five years before the 2015 deadline.

Yet 783 million people still live without safe water.

Today, Thursday 22 March, is World Water Day – a day of the year when we spotlight the global safe water and sanitation issue and the collective efforts underway to get solutions to those struggling and in need.

The issue has made a permanent impression on me. So, here it is:

It’s my own way of honouring a cause that is close to my heart. Any nervousness or reasons to not get it done are easily overcome by the reminder that at the end of the day, I have clean water to drink.

What has made a permanent impression on you?

5 responses to “Walking for water made its mark”

  1. Cath Johnstone Says:

    I’ve just written a blog post about the same subject though from a different perspective – also in Kenya. Please visit http://www.cathinafrica.wordpress.com

    I’ll be in Kisumu soon and hope if possible to see some of the work Practical Action is doing there.

  2. Michael Lingard Says:

    I know this may sound out of [place but I am to;ld this country would have had thousands of deaths from water borne diseases but for the fact we all drank tea! The very process of boiling saved so many lives. Can this concept be run in parallel with clean water provision?

  3. Gemma Hume Says:

    Hi Cath
    Thanks so much for your comment. I’m looking forward to hearing all about your visit to Kisumu as I was there last year seeing Practical Action projects in action. This included working with communities to protect spring water and build ecosan toilets. Please do keep in touch. And great blog by the way – really enjoyed reading it!

  4. Gemma Hume Says:

    Hi Michael

    Basically, yes; boiling water would run in parallel with other water treatment approaches.

    Boiling water can indeed help in the elimination of certain pathogens in water and is recommended as one of the approaches to cleaner water. However, this would probably need people to collect more wood for the fires and would require them to have containers with them to boil water in at the times when they were thirsty, which is not always practical, so the risk will remain even when water is boiled in the home. That is why it is vitally important to have as clean a water source as possible. Improved wells with a proper cover and fence to protect from insects and animals as well as adequate drainage to eliminate stagnating puddles around the well where mosquitos can breed make such a difference to health.

    Another interesting approach to killing off the pathogens in water is solar disinfection which can be done with very little cost is solar disinfection. Using transparent plastic bottles, which then are filled with water and then left in full sunshine for a couple of hours. The ultraviolet light from the sun kills off the pathogens. We have a technical brief on this approach. http://practicalaction.org/sodis-solar-water-disinfaction

  5. Abdul Haro Says:

    That is a very powerful blog Gemma. Thanks for highlighting the plight of the poor in this part of the world.

    Water is a crucial basic human need for survival whose availability enhances economic growth. In Northeastern province where Mandera is located,16.3 % of the 4 million inhabitants access their water from a pond, dam or lake, another 11.6% have piped water facility, 5.1% get water from the stream, 2.5% get water from direct rain water harvesting while a whooping 51.5% get their water from spring, shallow well or borehole (2009 Kenya National Population and Housing Census). Poor Sanitary conditions also impacts on prevailing and health standards of the local people, and hence development. The statistics on the main mode of Human Waste Disposal (% Households) is also striking. Picture this: only 0.4% of people in Northeastern province have a sewer system, another paltry 0.4% have septic tanks, 0.1% have a cess pool, 33% use pit latrines and 63% use the bush as a mode of human waste disposal.

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