In the Konso Region of southern Ethiopia, the struggle for clean, safe water is a daily reality for women and young girls.
“Bringing the water is not a simple task,” says Mariam Bakaule, a mother standing at the edge of the mountaintop village of Jarso. “This is the essence of women. Water and woman are synonymous here.”
The village of Jarso, like many of the others in the area, overlooks a vast valley stretching towards the Kenyan border. Yet the relative greenery of the region is deceptive. For the 13,000 people in Jarso, lack of rain in recent years has caused crops of maize, sorghum and haricot beans to fail.
At the center of this struggle to survive are the women and young girls whose responsibility it is to trek up to five hours a day to reach dry river beds, only to wait in long lines for scant resources. Uchiya Nallo, an eight-months-pregnant 29-year-old mother, spends half her day climbing a mountainside carrying more than 5 gallons (about 40 pounds) of water.
“The road is very dangerous and I feel tired all the time,” she says. “I am worried because sometimes I fall down and hurt myself. I worry because I feel tired. Now I am almost ready to give birth and I am walking slowly but maybe I will have some problems, I’m not sure.”
The correlation between the risk of maternal mortality for women in the developing world and access to safe water and sanitation is little understood. When water is gathered for drinking or washing, any contaminants or infectious agents can have a direct effect on maternal health. Infections and repeated worm infections from unsafe sanitation lead to other risks such as malnutrition, stunted growth and fatal obstructed labor. And the physical strain from carrying the water is itself dangerous, resulting in a higher risk of spinal injury, uterine prolapse, rheumatism hernia and spontaneous abortion.
In some respects, Ethiopia has made important strides toward the United Nations Millennium Goals of reducing maternal mortality. Today, just over half the population has access to water, nearly four times the number in 1990. Yet the country still has a long way to go: While a woman’s lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 3800 in the developed world, in Ethiopia it is 1 in 67.
WaterAid, an international non-governmental organization, is one of the groups improving access to clean water among the world’s poor, and has been working in Ethiopia since 1984. In the late afternoon light of May, villagers in Teshmale gather around a new water point constructed by the NGO. When the last of the technical difficulties has been solved, the tap is turned on and water gushes forth, first brown and then a pure, unclouded torrent.
It is the first time the children, long used to the dirty red water from the riverbeds, have seen clear water.
Mustafah Abdulaziz is a documentary photographer based in Berlin, Germany. His ongoing project, Water, exploring water issues around the world, has received grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, commissions from the United Nations and WaterAid.