Monday, September 5, 2011

Water Woes in East Africa

A boy collects water from rain puddles in northern Tanzania.

Turn on your tap. Use the water. If you can do that, you are safer than hundreds of millions of people in Africa.

In the remote Amani Rainforest Reserve in Eastern Tanzania, water is
supplied to the tap from on-site supplies. Note the sign that indicates
that the water is not safe for drinking.

Tap water is safe to drink in most places in America. One of the major achievements of democratic society in the United States has been the establishment, regulation, and supply of safe water. Although water probably does not factor into most peoples’ political conversations, it was a major civil issue 100 years ago (and more recently with federal legislation like the Clean Water Act). Today public water supplies in the United States are monitored at local, state, and federal levels. You can find out how to learn more about your water supply below in the “What you can do” section.

In areas like this one in Tanzania with low seasonal rainfall, lives
are disrupted and put in serious danger during a drought.

In some parts of Africa, water shortages are major problems. You may have seen in the news the ongoing drought in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. When the rains are delayed or do not fall as heavily as expected (if at all), people run out of drinking water. Their crops fail, livestock die, and food prices increase dramatically. [1]

This is a view from the Uganda shore; Lake Victoria is the biggest lake
in the Great Lakes Region in East Africa.

In other places, it is not a shortage of water that causes problems. Rwanda and the southern half of Uganda, for example, are both dotted with major and minor lakes (this is the Great Lakes region of Africa) and marshes that surround them; water is available, even in most dry seasons. The problems are the quality of the water and the distance that people have to carry it. Lack of access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation affects people in both water-scarce and water-abundant areas. 

Michele sits on the edge of Lake Muhazi, one of Rwanda's large lakes.

Some 330 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to clean drinking water. A total of 565 million do not have access to proper sanitation. Poorly constructed latrines and open defecation easily contaminate drinking water sources. People can become ill if they do not have clean water to wash their hands when preparing food. [2]

A young girl collects water from the swamp surrounding Lake
Mugesera in Rwanda.

Common illnesses spread through water include cholera, typhoid fever, and Hepatitis A. [3] Organisms that cause diarrhea are also spread through water. Diarrhea causes the body to lose water, and if you are already short on water, dehydration and even death can occur. In fact, diarrhea kills 2.2 million globally, with most of the deaths being children under five years old. [4] Additionally, standing water and sewage pools can provide breeding ground for insects that spread diseases like malaria.

Residents walk downhill to reach this watering hole near Lake Mugesera.
They have an uphill journey with jerrycans full of water.

According to the November 2010 version of the Rwanda Vision 2020 report, only 52% of Rwandans have access to clean water. One of the major water issues is related to sewage disposal. Some 64% of latrines do not meet the necessary requirements to ensure that they do not contaminate water supplies. [5] However, Rwanda is one of the few countries in Africa that is on track to meeting the United Nations Millennium Development goals for improving sanitation facilities and access to clean drinking water. [6]

This well and water pump in Rubona, Rwanda, provides much safer water
than the surface water from the lake and swamp.

Locally, people get water from several sources. They may collect it from centrally located wells with pumps. They may gather it from the lake or any number of water holes near the lake. Others may collect rain water, but this is only effective in the wet seasons. In my experience, piped water supplies to the home are more common in large urban settings, but do not reach rural areas. In rural areas, the average daily consumption is 8.15 liters of water per person. [7] Most of the water sources are at considerable distance, often requiring an uphill journey home, and water hauling is a time-consuming daily chore.

Michele works the pump to get water to wash in western Uganda.

We have an excellent water situation, especially for a rural area. Agahozo Shalom Youth Village provides clean water, flush toilets, and sewage treatment for its 375 (soon to be 500) students through several wells that use electricity to pump water into two 30,000 liter towers for storage. The water towers connect to all buildings, and it is like we have a tap. We also have large rain barrels that store water from the roof on each house. 

This is one of two water storage tanks for Agahozo-Shalom. Providing
clean water and sanitation is a major service we provide for our

There are some limitations to our water system. When the electricity goes out, which happens a few times a month, the water is soon to follow. If the village collectively uses the water too quickly, then nothing comes out of the tap. In this current dry season, when rain barrels do not fill up, overuse is a problem. The Environment Club conducted some water-conservation education earlier this year because village inhabitants used too much every day and pumps were breaking due to overworking. In June, we were bringing water from the second water tower for drinking and flushing, but we had to haul it up to 1km. You use only what you really need when you have to haul it. June was a smelly month for us without enough water for washing; I went without a shower for 12 full days and got lucky when the water came on briefly. Michele missed that opportunity and could not shower for 16 full days. Even with a good system in place, water is a resource that must be used wisely.

The rain barrel attached to our house stores water for washing, flushing,
and cleaning. We always boil this water if we are going to drink it.

We purify our drinking water just to be safe. There are several ways to purify water. We use a gravity-based filter system. One bag hangs high to hold unfiltered water, allows water to feed into the 0.02 micron filter at mid-level, and then flows into the low clean-water bag. We store up to 6 liters at a time in water bottles. While we know plenty of people who drink unfiltered water from the tap, we also know several people who suspect they got parasites from the water. Plus, the dirt residue left in the tube that leads to the filter tells me the water could be cleaner. 

Living here in rural Rwanda has shown me how vital access to clean water is. It seems like a no-brainer, but I never experienced shortages living in the States. I have a good water situation here, but even sometimes I have to haul water or go without. For all the hundreds of millions of people that do not have access to pumps and wells, their lives are at risk on a daily basis. Water is indeed the elixir of life.

How can you help people who do not have access to safe water?

Installing wells and pumps improves the lives of many who do not
have access to clean water.

-There are many other organizations working on access to improved water and sanitation facilities. I cannot endorse any specific organization because I have no personal experience with them. However, I read the websites of several for this article and found to be a promising, respected NGO working on water access in Africa.

-Appreciate your water supply and conserve water. As populations increase, pressure on water supplies will grow. Will your fresh water supply be safe throughout your lifetime?

To learn about your water supply (in the United States), “you should ask your water utility (the one that sends water bills to people in your community) for a copy of its annual water quality report, which is sometimes called a right-to-know report or consumer confidence report. Then get the brochure called "Making Sense of Your Right to Know Report," (see to help you understand the report. Read your report carefully and contact your health care provider if you have questions.”[8]

Works Cited

[2] UNICEF and World Health Organization Joint Monitoring Program, 2010 Update, “Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water.”
[5] Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, Republic of Rwanda, 2010 Update, “Rwanda Vision 2020.”
[6] UNICEF and World Health Organization Joint Monitoring Program, 2010 Update, “Progress on Sanitation and Drinking-Water.”
[7] Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, Republic of Rwanda, 2010 Update, “Rwanda Vision 2020.”
[8] Natural Resources Defense Council, 2006.

Note on photographs: I only take photographs of people if I have their permission. Many people do not wish to have their picture taken, and I respect that. The only times I do not seek permission are in the case of illegal activities such as deforestation inside protected areas or poaching.


  1. Great job Jared. Really interesting combination of research and your first-hand experience.
    Just wanted to say hi and let you know that I've really enjoyed reading the blog.

    --Mike Berenbom

  2. Thanks Mike! Hope all is well stateside.