Turning the tap

How sustainable water pipes and taps save lives and transform livelihoods in Afghanistan

Ajmal Sherzai
Zarb Ali _ Photo
UNICEF Afghanistan/2021/Mahbooba Haidary
19 May 2021

Balkh, northern Afghanistan, 19 May 2021 - During Afghanistan’s civil war, Zarb Ali lost his leg. Now 60, he lives in Nahreshahi district, Balkh province, in northern Afghanistan. It is a poor area with limited services – including access to safe drinking water. 

Ali does not have any job and cannot afford to buy safe drinking water for his family.

Almost twenty years ago, his situation deteriorated further.  He lost his 5-year-old son, Yaqoub, due to contaminated water.   

“My son suffered bloody diarrhea. Although I took him to the hospital, he did not survive,” says Ali with tears in his eyes. “I still remember his big black eyes, short black hair and beautiful full face.”

“I will never forget the days I slept under the trees in cold weather waiting for my son to recover. Only women were allowed into the clinic so I couldn’t be with him in his final days.”

Ali had no idea that water-borne diseases are dangerous and can lead to death.  Out of fear for his other three children’s lives, Ali insisted they fetch water from the closest well named Chahay Baba, located in Ali Abad village.

But that was 4 kilometers away.  Given Ali’s inability to walk well, it was up to his wife and children to walk the 8-kilometer journey carrying heavy water jerry cans.

Two of Ali’s children, Mustafa, 11, and Shekeba, 14, are in grades 4 and 8 respectively. Because of the time they spent fetching water, they could barely find time to study or play during the day; often times they missed out on school.

“My children could only get to school 3 days per week because they needed to bring clean water,” says Ali. “In summer, we needed even more water, so they spent even more time bringing water home.”

Like many children in Afghanistan, 11-year old Mustafa’s right to a full, safe and healthy childhood has been compromised.

“It was really difficult for me to fetch water on the cold, rainy days,” says Mustafa. “The jerry cans were very heavy and walking 4 kilometers each way on muddy roads was quite frustrating.”

UNICEF Afghanistan

Mustafa’s family is not alone in their challenges. As per the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, 33 per cent of people in Afghanistan do not have access to safe drinking water.

To make a living, Ali, his wife and three children clean peas and raisins provided by shopkeepers. In return, the family earns 50AFN (0.65 USD) per 7 kilograms.

“It takes us one and a half days to finish 7 kilograms,” laments Ali. “The only thing that consoles me is that all 600 families in our village face the same challenges.”

But with thanks to funding from the Government of Finland and USAID, UNICEF Afghanistan, in collaboration with the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, constructed a deep solar-powered well to provide safe drinking water to the village. 

Engineers installed water pipes to connect 326 houses, around 600 families. Approximately twenty people in the neighbourhood live with a disability and having access to piped water has made their lives, especially, much easier. Now, every home has a tap and access to safe drinking water.

“This water system changed our lives,” beams Ali.  “I no longer worry about my children and wife walking long distances to fetch water, or missing school, or becoming sick from contaminated water.”

The clean water has had an uplifting effect on everyone in the village, especially the children.

“I’m so happy with these taps! Now, I have time to play with my friends and go to school every day and study,” giggles Mustafa.  “I want to become an engineer so that I can build good roads so that all children in Afghanistan can walk to school easily.”