It is said that water is life, but what if accessing water was one of the most dangerous things you could do? Every day, millions of children are risking their lives because of poverty, for a resource essential for survival.
By ChildFund Australia
Joece* lives in a remote village of about 750 people in northern Kenya’s Samburu County. She is only 10 years old but for most of her childhood she risked her life just so she can have water to drink and bathe. From a young age, Joece and her friends walked for hours each day to collect water from a polluted river, the only water source near their village.
“The river water is very dirty,” Joece said. “The animals drink from it and then poo and pee in it, even kids do too. Sometimes you get very sick from drinking it.”
Outbreaks of cholera were common in Joece’s community. It’s a disease that causes severe diarrhoea and dehydration, and can be life threatening.
Water is essential for survival, but for Joece, and many more children, water also comes at a deadly price. In Kenya, almost 10 million people drink directly from contaminated water sources and an estimated 5 million people practise open defecation. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to the transmission of several diseases – not only cholera and diarrhoea, but also dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio.
Every day, around 1,000 children under the age of five die because of unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene.
Thirteen-year-old Agnes* is also from Samburu County. Like in Joece’s community, families in Agnes’ village have for generations relied on water from a dirty river for drinking and cleaning. The water was contaminated with sewage from a nearby town.
“It was the only water available and we had to drink it,” Agnes said. “We got stomach aches. There were a lot of times I got sick and I wouldn’t be able to go to school or play with friends.”
For children like Joece and Agnes who live in remote communities, the journey to collect water can be long and steal precious time away from them. Instead of playing or studying, they are risking their lives and futures to collect water– a basic human right.
Sad, horrific memories of losing children
Along with the risk of contracting deadly diseases through drinking the river water, Agnes and other children in her community also faced the danger of crocodiles. Families in Agnes’ village carry with them sad, horrific memories of losing children as they collected water or bathed in the river.
“The river is a very scary place,” said Agnes, who started fetching water from the river when she was four years old. “My best friend’s brother was tending the goats down by the river when he was taken by a crocodile.”
Ken, a village elder who is now in his 40s, remembers losing a friend in his childhood. “When I was a young boy, I went to the river with a friend. He was snatched by a crocodile that day. He jumped in and never came out again. Since then, I have never liked going to the river.”
Access to safe water is paramount to children’s survival.
With the support of people like you in Australia and ChildFund’s local partners in Kenya, we were able to help Joece and Agnes – and their communities – stay safe and healthy by installing a deepwater borehole system in their villages. The system bores deep underground to the water table below and pipes fresh, clean water to four taps at two different stations on either end of the village.
Now, Joece and Agnes, and hundreds more people in their Samburu County villages, can access clean water within minutes. “We used to have to go so far and now we’re happy because the water is right here in the village,” Joece said. “And there are no more dangerous cholera outbreaks.”
A beacon of hope
The construction of the boreholes began as Kenya entered a period of extreme drought that affected 3.3 million people across the Horn of Africa. Children and their families were forced to leave their homes in search of food and water, putting their wellbeing and safety at risk.
“It was very bad,” Joece said. “People were hungry and even starving. The rivers dried up, but we were still able to get water from the new borehole. There was no water anywhere else.”
Together, we can help more children like Joece and Agnes access clean, safe water in their communities for generations to come.
Your support can help save the lives of children around the world.
*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.
ChildFund Australia Global Programs Director Sarah Hunt shares how a recent trip to Zambia and Kenya was a stark reminder of how simple things like food, clean water, and health care can have a profound impact on children’s lives.
I’ve often seen the impact that both poverty and development can have on children and families, but during my recent trip to Kenya and Zambia there were a couple of things that stood out: flushing toilets in communities, which showed how far we’ve come; and children on the side of the road, desperate for water, which showed how much we still need to do.
“We encountered young children asking for water. These children, had been out all day in the hot sun, searching for water for what livestock they still had left.”
Together, with colleagues from the ChildFund Kenya team, we were several hours north of the capital, Nairobi, driving through pastoralist communities, when we encountered young children asking for water. These children, had been out all day in the hot sun, searching for water for what livestock they still had left.
It was a stark reminder of what happens to children when the impacts of poverty are compounded by crises or disaster such as severe drought.
Health volunteers help to reduce maternal and child deaths in remote communities
I’ve been with ChildFund Australia for 15 years and held several different program roles during this period. The first time I travelled to Zambia and Kenya was between 2005 to 2008, as ChildFund’s Africa Program Coordinator. At the time, a key focus was supporting children – many of whom were orphans – impacted by HIV/AIDS.
Today, we work closely with local partners to implement a range of projects in both countries, from health and education to child protection. We also respond to emergencies such as the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa.
Over the years I’ve noticed that level of investment in infrastructure has increased, but it’s only really obvious in urban areas and especially the capital cities. In remote communities, clean water and health care facilities are still inadequate, and far and few between.
In Zambia, I visited a health centre that the local partner – Chibombo Child Development Agency – began building in 2015 with support from ChildFund. The centre is about an hour and a half away from the capital, Lusaka, and services a remote community of about 8,000 people. It had new housing for staff, and a post-natal bay for mothers and their newborn babies.
The health centre provides community members with basic healthcare but if someone is seriously ill, or there are complications with a pregnancy, they need to be referred to a hospital 30kms away – the next closest health facility. To get there, most families need to find someone who has a motorbike who will take them all the way, or to the main road, where they will need to find alternative transport to the hospital.
It was inspiring to see the passion and ambition of the health centre staff. They showed me a 20-year roadmap of everything they wanted to build. It included dentistry and radiology rooms, and an operating theatre. The hope is to one day be able to provide patients with a full suite of health services at the centre.
The outreach work of the different community health volunteers was impressive. These volunteers are so important to the community and fill the service gaps of the health centre. They provide antenatal and postnatal support to mothers, and monitor the development and growth of young children. They are key to preventing child malnutrition and common childhood diseases.
The volunteers shared that the health outreach work they were doing was helping to reduce the number of maternal and child deaths in the community.
Girls need to be in school. Period.
I also visited a school supported by ChildFund Zambia. I’ve seen lots of water and sanitation facilities over the past 15 years, but it was at this school in Kafue District in Zambia that, for the first time I saw a school with flushing toilets. Previously I’d only ever seen pit latrines for students and teachers to use.
It is the school’s activities around menstrual hygiene, that are really making a difference to the lives of girls and young women.
Many families in the community cannot afford menstrual hygiene products, so girls often stay at home when they have their period. Some girls and young women engage in risky behaviour to afford them; they’re either doing cheap domestic labour to be able to save a bit of money on the weekends or after school to buy the products, or they’re engaging in relationships with older men, who will buy the products for them.
There’s also a lot of stigma and taboo associated with periods. Part of the issue is not being able to afford products, but there’s also a sense of embarrassment around menstruation. Together with their local partner, the Kafue Child Development Association, ChildFund Zambia is working with families and communities to change these harmful perceptions and attitudes.
The school I visited is also providing girls with sanitary pads and has built proper waste disposal facilities for these products. This has been critical to keeping girls in school.
Clean water, at last
Pastoral communities in Turkana and Marsabit counties in Kenya have faced the crippling impacts of the longest, and most severe and widespread drought in the country in a decade. More than 4 million people in Kenya have been affected by the drought, which is driving alarming levels of food scarcity, and malnutrition for children and women.
“Simple things like not having enough food or water at home can prevent children from accessing an education.”
When we encountered those children on the side of the road, desperate for water, we handed out bottles of drinking water where we could. But this was a short-term solution to a very big, complex problem.
At our destination in Marsarbit county, I saw how local partners and ChildFund, with generous support from the Australian public, had helped to rehabilitate a clean water system in a community severely impacted by the drought. The team was also helping to provide children in early childhood centres with supplementary food. During the drought, these activities enabled children – who would have otherwise had to search for food and water during the day – stay in school.
Simple things like not having enough food or water at home can prevent children from accessing an education.