My work has taken me around the world. From South Asia to Africa to Latin America, while meeting with the people served by Water.org, I’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful sites on earth, and I’ve learned the stories of some of the world’s most resilient, remarkable humans. While the sites and people are all unique to the lands and cultures that have formed them, in each country I’ve traveled, there is one thing the communities have in common.
Whether it’s along the red dirt roads leading to Addis Ababa or just past the hustle and bustle of big cities like Lima and Delhi, any time of day, women of all ages carry large, heavy vessels of water. Sometimes they’re juggling two forty-pound yellow jerry cans on either side of their bodies. Other times, jugs sit balanced upon their heads. No matter the means, the mode is women on foot, walking to and from their homes with water they’ve found or bought because they don’t otherwise have access to it.
When I see this, when I meet with these women, I get it. I’m a mom, and I understand why another mom spends hours of her day in a sometimes difficult and time-consuming pursuit of the water her children need to survive. What we do for our families is driven by a sacrificial love—keeping them alive trumps all other priorities in life, even those of our own well-being. But, when it comes to water—something most of us have access to just a few steps away—must the stakes be so high?
The moms I’ve met, the women who journey to find and collect water every day of their lives, they are strong and extraordinary. Their determination to give their kids a safe, healthy life is unwavering. Each day they wake early to find water. They leave before sunrise regardless of the weather or the dangers that exist along their path. And in their efforts to get water, these women often face an impossible choice—certain death without water or possible death due to illness from dirty water. They do what they do to get it because, despite the chore, their feelings of inequity, the inconvenience, and the struggle, they are driven by that desire to keep their families alive.
When it comes to water—something most of us have access to just a few steps away—must the stakes be so high?
One such mom is Zenebech. While documenting Water.org’s impact in Ethiopia, I spent time learning her story. For a time, she collected water from a distant stream. She employed the help of her children, but as they grew older, she didn’t want them to be burdened with the sometimes dangerous, three-hour-chore. Instead, she bore the burden alone so they could go to school. After years of doing this, Zenebech’s journey to water finally ended. It was not at a pond or a stream, but at a bank. Through the work of Water.org, our financial partner in her village made Zenebech a small, affordable loan to establish her own water connection at home.
With enthusiasm, Zenebech described the good things that have come from having access to water. She can retrieve it any time of day; allowing her time to work and earn more income, she can feed her children more easily, she can grow fruits and vegetables, and her family can bathe as needed. At one point, Zenebech interrupted her expressions of gratitude and joy to share what felt like a deeply held secret. She grabbed my hand and pulled me close. Then she said quietly, “I’m using this water now, but I know the pain before.” Zenebech knows the pain of not having access to safe water at home—and she won’t forget. She won’t forget because her neighbors in the village, her friends whom I met, they still walk by her home each morning, on their way to collect water. And, with each turn of her own water tap handle, water flows, and so do her memories of how she used to get it.
Ever mindful of the pain of her water crisis, Zenebech’s passion for solving the lack of access to water in her small village is strong, like her. She explained, “I share my water. And I am telling others in my village to take a small loan for water if they can. Because I don’t want them to suffer any longer.” Like Zenebech’s friends, millions of women around the world are disproportionately affected by the water crisis. They spend a combined 200 million hours every day collecting water. This takes time away from earning income, from going to school and getting an education, and from caring for their homes and children.
The health risks, the financial strain, and the pain—a lack of water and sanitation locks women and their families in a cycle of poverty. The stakes are high, but we can lower them. I know this to be true—when women have access to safe water at home, they can change their world. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve listened to their stories, I’ve drank their water, and I’ve held their hands as they told me how it changed their lives. Let’s give more moms like Zenebech what all of us want for our families—lives of hope, health, and opportunity.
—By Morée Lambeth, Senior Content Creator, Water.org