Just Add Water

Safe Access
A social watershed

Rick Rheingans, Research Assistant Professor of Global Health

Vol. 8 No. 5
April/May 2006

Return to Contents

Just Add Water
An interdisciplinary experiment

Reading and Resources

"Why do Atlantans not know that there are massive river
systems throughout the state, that a major river runs through the city, that the city dumps all these effluents into it?"

"When the impervious [surface] area rises to 30 percent,
the stream habitat becomes completely degraded. On campus,
we have greater than 50 percent impervious area."

Safe Access
A social watershed

Water as Sacred
Jewish and Christian traditions

The Rarest Element
Despite centuries of research, mysteries of water remain


Divine Providence has made those things neither scarce nor dear which are necessary for mankind, as are pearls, gold, silver, and the like, which are neither necessary for the body nor nature; but has diffused abundantly, throughout the world, those things, without which the life of mortals would be uncertain. . . .Water is of infinite utility to us, not only as affording drink, but for a great number of purposes in life; and it is furnished to us gratuitously.
— Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, De Architectura, Book VIII.

Vitruvius’ image of a world in which a divine entity provides water as needed is appealing. If only it were true. Vitruvius did correctly understand the centrality of water to our lives, both as we live them and as we plan. This reality is often lost on us in our daily lives, but on occasion something happens to remind us. It may be a broken main that shuts off our service or a threat of alternate-day watering restrictions. News of Hurricane Katrina also shook this normal ambivalence. There was something jarring about seeing tens of thousands of Americans living closely together without drinking water or toilets.

Of course, this is a reality that is remarkably common throughout the world. Over a billion people lack access to an improved water source, and 2.6 billion do not have appropriate sanitation. The result is four to six thousand childhood deaths every day. It has to be one of the greatest social divides—the split between those who have to struggle every day to get the water they need to survive and those of us who simply turn on a faucet.

On a recent trip to Kenya, I visited several areas where the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory has existing applied research and evaluation projects or is planning to begin them. I went to several communities where we are helping the Atlanta Rotary Club establish one hundred deep borehole wells. One of the areas was the Kitui district, east of Nairobi, in the heart of an arid region gripped by drought for the past three years. In this rural region, people are precariously dependent upon water for their livestock, crops, and human consumption. This place would shock anyone used to turning on a faucet and simply expecting water to come out. Water is scarce there, but it is also potentially deadly. Surface water is easily contaminated by animal and human waste, causing diarrheal diseases—one of the leading causes of death in children under five years in Kenya.

The number of inventive ways that people in Kitui get their water reveals an amazing ethnohydrology. On the ride to the communities we planned to visit, we passed a dry riverbed where a woman was digging a hole a meter and a half deep. At the bottom were the remnants of the river, flowing unseen beneath the ground. She scooped the water from the pool at the bottom and waited for more to seep back into the pool.

As we passed one of the few flowing rivers in the district, crowds convened with carts, donkeys, and innumerable twenty-liter yellow jerry cans. In a shallow area one woman stood over a raised circle of pebbles she had created. The circle isolated a pool of water. No longer flowing, the sediments in the water began to settle out, and after a while she scooped out the clearer water.

When we reached one of our new borehole wells in Kitui, we witnessed additional divides. The new hand pump and its concrete pad were surrounded by a fence and a gate with a sign naming the donor organizations. Inside, a man and woman paid by the community water committee took turns pumping. The pump lifts the water from seventy meters below the surface, where it runs like a river through fissures in the solid bedrock. If the water were any deeper, a hand pump would not be sufficient and a motorized one would be required, making the project more expensive and harder for the community to maintain. The water from this borehole is very different than what I saw being collected on the way. The deeper water is protected from contamination by human or animal waste and should be free of the pathogens that cause diarrhea.

A line of thirty people waited to have their containers filled. Some lived within a kilometer of the well; others came from as far as thirteen kilometers away. One young girl waited with her sixteen twenty-liter containers and four donkeys. She walked twelve kilometers each way every other day to bring water to her family. About three hundred people collect water from the well each day, meaning that it serves two or three thousand people daily. Households that are part of the community and contributed labor or materials for the well’s construction pay about a dollar per month and receive four twenty-liter jerry cans per day. Others pay about five cents for each twenty liters. It’s important to put this in perspective. This is about one-hundredth the cost of spring water from Publix, but hundreds of times more than the water we get from our taps. A day’s supply of four jerry cans could easily cost a family twenty to fifty percent of its income.

Next to the new pump stands the old source, a hand-dug well that is still in use. This well is a major endeavor created over time. A steep ramp cuts into the dirt and levels off about five meters below the surface. There, a woman stands with several containers. At the end of the ramp is a pit that is three meters wide and goes down an additional seven meters to the top of the water table. Another woman scoops water from a pool in the bottom of the pit. When she fills a container, it is passed up to the first woman and given to its owner (at one-third of the cost of the borehole water).

The two wells are tapping into different zones of groundwater. The hand-dug well, although deep, produces less water and is more likely to be contaminated before and during collection. While more people were using water from the new well, the user fees were clearly keeping the poorest households (those that need it the most) from using the improved source. These fees are essential to ensure that the water committee has resources to maintain and repair the well, but they also create a tradeoff between equity and sustainability.

So how is it that Vitruvius’ vision can be so betrayed? How can something so precious and essential be the cause of such disparities? Both within Kitui and on a global scale a variety of factors converge to create the divides. The natural heterogeneity in rainfall and the peculiar ways it moves over and through the earth create one level of division. Disparities in financial (and other) resource availability between countries, communities, and households add further layers of inequity. Gender and generational roles determine who bears the greatest burden of poor access. As local and global communities pay increasing attention to improving access to safe drinking water, we need to pay special attention to how these divides are perpetuated and how they can be overcome.