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Clean water brings health and happiness to mothers and children

© UNICEF Angola/2004/Elder
Fatima Kituxi holds her two most precious possessions: Her son Fernando and her clean water.

By James Elder

Today a major new UNICEF/WHO report states that more than one billion people still use unsafe sources of drinking water. A UNICEF project in rural Angola demonstrates what can be done when political will meets international support.

MABUIA, Angola, 26 August 2004 – For as long as she can remember – from when she was a little girl to when she became a young woman and then a mother – a dominant theme in Fatima’s life was her struggle to cope with the harmful effects of unclean water.

Growing up in the Angolan village of Mabuia, just north of the capital, Fatima would spend up to four hours each day collecting water. Disease could be, and was, transmitted via the water. As a result Fatima had to spend many additional hours each week caring for sick siblings, and then in later life for her own sick children.

In 1999, Fatima’s first child, Isabel, died after a series of attacks of diarrhoea. “Isabel was always sick, she could just never get strong” says Fatima, hugging her second child, 13-month-old Fernando. “By the time Isabel was Fernando’s age she had been sick a dozen times.”

In 2000, UNICEF responded to Mabuia’s appalling levels of child mortality by supporting the Angolan government in building a pipeline from a river to the community. A filtering system was added to ensure every single drop of water was clean and safe. For improved sanitation, latrines, washbasins, taps and showers were installed for many residents.

The results were exceptional: Diarrhoea rates dropped to almost zero and child deaths plummeted. Girls were suddenly freed up from hours of walking to and from the river so that they could enter school. Mothers found more time for growing food crops, which could be sold to boost the family income and enable the purchase of more diverse foods and mosquito nets.

© UNICEF Angola/2004/Elder
Women collect clean water from one of the water points in Mabuia, Angola.

In addition, UNICEF helped create a community water and sanitation committee which now maintains the system. Sanitation and hygiene education programmes were started to teach good sanitation practices to the community. The committee now ensures that the system is self-sustaining, allowing UNICEF to invest in new rural projects.

Smiling widely, Fatima swings Fernando onto her back, fills her bucket under the gushing pipe, and drinks. “Clean water!” she says, as if she had just poured liquid gold.

One of Fatima’s neighbours is Celina Candido, 13. Celina started school late, but without Mabuia’s water project she would not have started at all. Until the construction of the pipeline, Celina day began with her making the hour-long walk to the river, then returning with 15 litres of water on her head. She would make this trip up to three times each day – all for the sake of getting water.

In 2001, six months after the completion of the pipeline, Celina was able to start attending school. With the arrival of clean water to Mabuia, Celina could do her chores in a fraction of the time. “School is the best part of my day,” she says, as we walk the 70 metres from the water point to her home. “I am happy to do my chores, but I like it best when I learn writing or when we sing in class.”

However, Mabuia remains the exception rather than the rule in Angola. Almost three decades of civil war devastated water systems across Angola, leaving millions of people without clean water or basic sanitation. Sanitation coverage in Angola has declined, in urban areas from 62 per cent to 56 per cent and in rural areas from 19 per cent to 16 per cent. UNICEF is working to improve the situation by drilling boreholes across Angola, constructing major pipelines, establishing a national sanitation education campaign, and conducting an ongoing operation to provide water to schools.

“Fatima and Celina clearly show the impact of safe drinking water,” says UNICEF Angola Representative Mario Ferrari. “When people are mired in poverty, providing clean water and sanitation will have a dramatic bearing on their lives.”

“Hefty inroads into child mortality will only happen with continued international support and political will,” continues Ferrari. “If this happens the children of Angola will savour the change; if it does not then we will continue to see an increasing disparity between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.”

Fatima and her son Fernando are happy to have water. “A mother must take care of her children,” says Fatima, emptying her load of clean water in a bucket at her grass hut. “But we cannot do that when we have only dirty water. This project has changed the fortunes of this village. Look at my son – he is healthy. This is what every mother prays for: That there will be no more tears.”



Related links

Press release: World facing silent emergency as billions struggle without clean water and basic sanitation

Publication: Meeting the MDG Drinking Water and Sanitation Target: A mid-term assessment of progress

Website: Meeting the MDG Drinking Water and Sanitation Target: A mid-term assessment of progress

Bad water kills 4,000 children a day

Water and sanitation bring children back to school

Clean water brings health and happiness to mothers and children

Read more about UNICEF's work on water, environment and sanitation



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