Last Friday I shared with three fifth grade classes about the global water crisis. And what clean water does.
In our brief time together I shared the story of two five-year-olds girls in Kenya and how clean water has the power to free a child to flourish in life, in whole communities. While I spoke broadly of this the direst of all global crises, the reality of 1,000 children dying today due to diarrhea from lack of clean water and sanitation can only hit us if we consider children are real people, and we enter their story.
What is the power of clean water? What does it do?
Consider how two five-year-olds, Cheru and Kamama, who live near one another in Kenya. Yet their days and lives are vastly different due to one difference:
Both 5-year-olds live in rural Kenya, and like millions of African children, they help their mothers carry water every day. Though they live just 16 miles apart, for one, fetching water is a three-hour struggle; for the other, it’s a seven-minute stroll.
Walk with them.
—”Water Within Reach” 1
Cheru’s Walk for Water
Every day for Cheru:
Cheru walks for dirty water
- Age: 5
- Location: Chepoyotwo village, Kenya
- Distance to water: 6.88 kilometers, or 4.27 miles, round trip
- Time spent on each trip: 3 hours, 32 minutes
Cheru Lotuliapus drinks the last of her warm milk tea — her usual breakfast — and hands the tin cup to her mother, Monica, to wash.
Her older sister, Dina, waits for her, jerry can in hand. Cheru stands on tiptoe to pull down the tea kettle hanging on the side of a woven wood stand where clean dishes dry in the sun. The girls hurry to join other children with jerry cans large and small, and the group sets out walking on a hours-long journey to fetch the water their families’ lives depend on.
The sun climbs higher and hotter in the clear sky as if to melt the sand and rocks of the dry Kesot River bed. Slowing their pace, the children, ranging in age from 5 to 12, skirt the bluffs and linger in the shade of trees.
Sweat beading on her forehead, Cheru falls behind. She stops, swaps the kettle to her other hand, and plunges ahead to catch up at the next resting place. The youngest of the group, Cheru follows the older children and tries to do what they do.
Five-year-old Cheru walks over 6 kilometers every day to get water.
A World Vision photographer turned on his GPS while he journeyed with her to capture her trek. It took 3.5 hours to cover the distance over difficult terrain.
At the waterhole
Cheru’s battered aluminum tea kettle holds enough water for her morning tea, but little more. When she digs in the sandy riverbed with the lid and scoops enough water to fill her kettle, it’s not enough to cook a meal or wash dishes.
Even at age 5, Cheru knows that her mother worries about water and struggles to carry enough for their daily needs, though she makes the round trip trek twice a day. So every day, the little girl picks up her kettle and walks to fill it. “I help my mother,” she says.
Dina, 6, can dig faster and fill her jerry can with more water. She’s impatient and pushes Cheru out of the way. They’ve had to wait for a turn to dig, and others are waiting to take their place. Goats, cows, and camels jockey for position, too. The little girl starts to cry.
Children don’t get the best places to dig. There’s a larger, more productive waterhole 50 yards further on. There, women fill jerry cans, bathe their babies, wash clothes, and watch their cattle drink.
The driest time of year is coming, bringing months when there is no rain. As water becomes more scarce, the fiercest competitors — wild honeybees — dominate the waterholes during the day, threatening to sting intruders. The bees gather anywhere there’s moisture, even clustering around a child’s runny nose or in the corner of their eyes, says Monica.
As it gets drier, digging becomes serious business for adults. They’ll dig deep, some years going down 20 feet, hauling up filled jerry cans with a rope until the waterholes yield no water, only sand. The holes can cave in on people who are digging, and animals sometimes fall in and drown.
“When there’s no water here, we go to the dam,” says Samson, Cheru’s father. They walk more than six miles to take water from a crocodile-infested river.
The effects of this life mean Cheru and so many other girls and women are not able to live up to their potential. Every day is shaped by the walk for water.
Consider this contrast …
What fetching clean water looks like for Kamama:
Easy access to clean water means a short and carefree journey for Kamama, as well as better health and opportunities to learn.
Kamama has choices because of clean water
- Age: 5
- Location: Sengelel village, Kenya
- Distance to water: 252 yards, or .14 miles, round trip
- Time spent on each trip: 6 minutes, 49 seconds
Barely 16 miles away lives another 5-year-old girl, Kamama Lolem, whose life is very different from Cheru’s. She and three siblings are World Vision sponsored children — and where World Vision brings clean water and child sponsorship, a cascade of blessings follow: fewer illnesses, better nutrition, more kids in school, and time for moms and dads to farm or run a business.
In 2015, World Vision — along with community members including Kamama’s mother, Julia — tapped a mountain spring and piped water down to their community. Everything has been different since then.
Kamama’s family and their neighbors have experienced the transformation that clean water brings. Their 13-mile-long gravity-fed pipeline carries water to 15 kiosks, serving 880 households as well as schools, churches, and a health center. World Vision runs the system, but local committees manage the kiosks and are preparing to take over maintenance, too, funded by a small monthly fee for users.
Paving the way for progress
Like Cheru, Kamama helps her mother by carrying a small jerry can — or even the family’s tea kettle — to easily bring water from the nearest source. She can fill her kettle with clean water from a kiosk and return home in less than seven minutes, a round trip of 252 yards. She doesn’t have to compete with cattle and goats who dirty the water; the animals drink from their own water trough, away from the village water supply.
Kamama and her friends like to meet at the kiosk to play, just yards from where their mothers are drawing water, washing clothes, or hanging laundry on the cactus fence that lines the dirt road.
“Before, I walked for three hours to collect water from the river,” says Julia. “Now it’s just a few minutes to the kiosk.”
The responsibility for providing for her children falls solely on Julia. Tragedy struck the family in 2014 when her husband, Daudi, was killed in a road accident. Julia worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep the children in school, which had been her husband’s dream for them.
“On my own, I knew I had to work extra hard. First, I work to grow maize, fruit, and other crops we can eat and sell. Then I pick up other work, too,” says Julia.
World Vision and the family’s church helped keep them afloat and boosted her courage.
“When discouraged and things felt very difficult, I thought about God’s plan,” says Julia. “God has a plan for us. And in that plan, I need to manage for my family. I have authority.”
‘Water has changed everything’
The effects of the water project flow through the village. Clean water runs from the faucet in the community health center’s lab, and it’s piped straight to the school and sprinkled on the children’s demonstration garden. It has changed family life in fundamental ways.
“Life became much easier when the water came. We save time, too. I have more time for farming,” Julia says. She and her children tend maize, beans, millet, and lush fruit trees heavy with mangoes, oranges, lemons, and guavas. They have maize to eat from their harvest, even in a year with low rainfall.
Samuel Lemungole, lab technician at the local health center, remembers the days when he’d arrive at work to find 10 people waiting, very sick.
“I’d test and find that it was typhoid. Now we seldom see that. Diarrhea and other waterborne diseases are way down,” he says. “Water has changed everything for the better.”
Good health comes not just from piped water to drink, but also from using toilets, taking baths, and washing hands. World Vision trains village health volunteers who teach others to construct and maintain toilets. World Vision WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) clubs in the primary school teach health and hygiene.
Education is stronger than ever, too. Enrollment at the local primary school increased from 200 to 500 students in the two years since water came. Students grow a demonstration garden in the schoolyard, full of tomatoes, sukuma wiki (collards), and other greens. “It’s our outdoor classroom,” says Korio John, their teacher. “They learn science, nutrition, culture, life skills. The garden is perfect for developing the whole child.”
Kamama is in her second year of school. She goes every day with her best friends, Ktum and Safari, who live next door. “She can go to school early and study well, wear clean clothes, and not be tired or sick,” says her mother proudly. “To drink clean water and keep your children clean, this is a good life.”
Our family of four is walking/running 6K this Saturday to provide clean water for Jonalisha, Ebalakyntiew, Ramsey, and Anusha. We’ve committed to partnering with them long-term in sponsorship as well.
Will you join us?
By walking or running 6K on May 6th, you will take away that walk from a child like Cheru. Which kid will be on your bib?
Here and on my blog I echo the sentiment that we are all minor characters in the big Story, yet if we truly believe Jesus is the Hero, and we want to find our significance in Him, we will give our best to love our neighbors near and far, in His name.
Clean water is merely a first step in that direction, and while these kids need it badly, we need to give it just as much. » join or support Team Renew for Water at TeamWorldVision.org/Renew
Nearly 1,000 children under age 5 die every day from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and improper hygiene. We believe the global water and sanitation crisis can be solved within our lifetimes, and World Vision is focused on providing clean water and sanitation to every man, woman, and child in every community they work in, including the most vulnerable populations in the hardest-to-reach places.
World Vision is the leading nongovernmental (NGO) provider of clean water. We reach one new person with clean water every 30 seconds. We work alongside communities so that they take ownership in maintenance and repair of water points. This results in water that continues to flow long after our work concludes. The longevity of World Vision water projects is unsurpassed.
In joining Team World Vision we get to fund water projects that will serve their communities for decades.
World Vision and their partners commit to expanding our reach from providing clean water to one new person every 30 seconds to reaching one new person every 10 seconds with clean water and sanitation by 2020, and then continuing at that pace for another 10 years until we reach everyone everywhere we work by 2030. (Update: they’ve reached that 2020 goal early and now every 10 seconds a new child receives clean water.)
- Most of the story shared here borrowed from an article by Kathryn Reid of World Vision. Read her fascinating article, “Water within reach: Compare two 5-year-olds’ walk for water,” April 11, 2017. ↩