What is the importance of water? “Water is life” is such a common expression that we use it almost as a cliché. However, that phrase is probably one of the most powerfully true messages the whole creation bears witness to. If, as we learn from geography, the earth is 2/3 water, and science says the human body is 70% water, then it goes without saying that no life can be sustained without water. So much has been written about the importance of water. From an early age we have been taught the water cycle and how it sustains life, but we still continue to take it for granted. We pollute water basins, rivers, and even the atmosphere that provides us with this precious commodity.
So, once again, let’s try to consider the extremely important message that water is everything and water changes everything. This article focuses on two existing scenarios, based in my two favourite countries in the world, to try and drive home the point that water is truly the centre piece of all life, and its availability – or lack thereof – is quite literally a matter of life and death.
This planet is given to us to take care of. If we are faithful in doing our part, it rewards us in sustaining our lives. So when we misuse, mishandle, and misappropriate the natural resources found on Earth, water being by far the biggest and most vulnerable of all, then the consequences are far reaching and devastating.
Some Uses of Water
Let us take a look at some of the uses we humans have for water:
We all need to drink water to keep our bodies hydrated; not just any water, but clean drinking water. It is recommended that adults should consume at least 8 glasses of water per day. This is how we maintain that 70% of body water volume. Food, soups, soft drinks, alcohol, wine, and beverages all use water to make them. No water equals no food and drinks.
Cleaning and Sanitation
Hygiene is next on the priority list. It is said that “cleanliness is next to godliness”. Many waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid, dysentery, dengue fever, and viral hepatitis A are results of people utilising dirty water for drinking or bathing. Water can get contaminated by chemicals, viruses, or bacteria that might later affect those who use it. Some waterborne diseases, like cholera, are not only contagious if not taken care of in a quickly manner, but they can also be fatal. Malaria may not be a wholly waterborne disease, but is a result of mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water. It is safe to say that stagnant water is polluted water, therefore not safe for consumption.
According to kid’s health, water helps the body get rid of waste in urine, sweat, and solid waste. It is also found in the lymph nodes, where it helps the body build up and sustain the immune system.
Whatever food growing method you are involved in, let it be known that you will not be harvesting if there is no water. This is also true if your crop does not get the required amount of water to fully develop and bear fruit. Whether your crops are rainfed or irrigated, the magic word here is water.
Do you boat, kayak, or go on cruises on the ocean? Water is the medium used to give you that adrenaline rush any time you hit a rapid or push the oars against the currents. Riding the waves on your water board is an amazing experience that would be nonexistent if our oceans suddenly dried up.
We do not have any say on where we are born or brought up, and some of us have never known what it means to lack water; it has always just flowed from the taps in our homes. We water the grass with sprinklers, soak in a bathtub, or even take a refreshing shower after a run in the park. The closest we have come to “fetching water” is probably when we carried a glass jug from the fridge to the kitchen counter. It is not a bad life, but it is so very different for many others whose very existence revolves around getting water to drink and cook with.
Now, let us take a look at a pair of ten-year-old girls who live in two separate countries and circumstances in Africa. The first one is named Mpho; she was born and lives in North Kgalagadi district in the Republic of Botswana. The second is Mueni, who was born and lives in Makueni County in the eastern region of the Republic of Kenya. The stories of these two lovely girls are going to prove just how important water is, and always has been, in their lives. Let’s take a look:
It is Monday morning, and Mpho, her name meaning ‘gift’, is woken up by her mother to get ready for school. She is in class five at the local government school that is only half a kilometre away from her homestead. Her mother has already made a fire at the makeshift kitchen outside by using dried sticks that she and Mpho had collected from the bushes on Saturday. Mpho walks to fetch a bucket of water from the standpipe just outside her gate. The standpipe supplies water to their homestead, as well as four others in a local cluster. Water comes to this pipe from a borehole that the government sunk years before Mpho was born, and it is run and maintained by the local district council. In the Kgalagadi, water is very hard and leaves a thick layer of white lime and chalk deposits on anything it comes in contact with; however, it is not contaminated. With boiling, it is safe to drink. Mpho has used this water her whole life. Whenever the engine at the borehole breaks down, water is delivered by the council bowsers.
Although it will be in less quantities than when coming from a standpipe, there is still water. In addition, Mpho has never seen a river. This is because there are absolutely no rivers in her part of the desert. Yet, apart from the name of her district and what she hears others saying, she really has no concept of what a desert is. She has lived in one all her life, but she has never travelled outside of her village to find something to compare it to. Mpho, though not consciously, believes that everybody else lives the way that they do in her village.
Mpho quickly finishes eating her plate of sorghum porridge, before grabbing her bag of books and rushing out to meet up and walk to school with her group of friends. When her teacher asks her to write a letter during her English lesson later that day, Mpho tells about wants to be when she grows up, and she explains the reasons for her choice. Mpho has no idea how blessed she is to have never had to miss a day of school, or walk many kilometres to fetch water for her family to use in cooking, washing clothes, and bathing.
After her children have gone to school, Mpho’s mother fetches water from the standpipe for family laundry, household chores, and meal preparations. Later on, she goes to the village borehole to make sure that her flock of goats are watered by the designated herdsmen, along with the goats belonging to the rest of the villagers. With the scorching Kgalagadi sun beating down mercilessly on the life forms below, the goats and cattle take shelter under the shrubs and thorn trees after drinking their fill.
Back at home in the evening, Mpho’s mother waters her garden, which is at the back of her house and covered in a green shade net. She grows some spinach, kale, onions, and tomatoes in her small garden. The sandy soil quickly drains the water, and her plants show their displeasure by drooping from the lack of moisture. If only there was a way to tone down the heat, her garden would do much, much better. Still, the unhappy veggies pucker up later in the evening. They also save her plenty, because vegetables and fruits are very expensive in Kgalagadi – they are transported all the way from Gaborone or South Africa. So, though she is not able to farm on a much larger scale, Mpho’s mother has enough for the pot that feeds her family.
Mueni, another ten-year-old girl, lives almost 4,000km away in a different land. Mueni means ‘visitor’ in her mother tongue. Mueni was born in Makueni, a semi arid region within eastern Kenya. In terms of climate and terrain, she lives in an area very much like the one where Mpho lives. However, for Mueni, there is no borehole in her village. There is not even a river nearby. These circumstances make life very different for the little girl.
On Monday morning, she did not wake up to get ready to go to school. Instead, she woke up long before dawn, where she and her mother joined a group of other village mothers and daughters to begin a long trek to fetch the precious commodity called water. Mueni is carrying a plastic container of 10 litres capacity, while her mother has a 25 litre one. The journey starts at 4:00 am, and they walk the whole morning. By midday, they get to the water hole. Depending on how many others are coming to fetch water, they may be there for an hour or two. After filling their respective containers, which they hang on their heads as it lies on their backs by a belt woven from sisal fibres, they make the long trek home. Tired and dusty, they finally arrive home in the late evening. A whole day has gone and only one thing was accomplished: fetching water.
Tomorrow, Mueni and her mother will wash family clothes and share bathing water with the rest of the household. On Wednesday, she and her mom will once again be on the road to fetch water for Thursday. With this kind of life, Mueni hardly goes to school. As for her mother, she cannot do any kind of farming; the ground is usually parched, but her water is also shared with the few goats and chickens that the family owns.
With the help of some NGOs, such as Utooni Development Organisation and Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), ways of harvesting the sporadic rain water and storing it underground are being explored. As such projects have succeeded in Makueni, more families are finding time to cultivate and water their fields, and the children are also now free to attend school. In many areas, you find that girls are older than their boy classmates. This is due to the fact that they came to school later. Additionally, most get married earlier because they are not busy pursuing their studies or careers.
As a little girl growing up in central Kenya, we had rivers everywhere, and my earlier memories are of frequent rains. Whether it was from water collected into drums strategically placed on the slant of the roof, or the water emptied from the gutters, we always had water in abundance. The rivers would haul a number of things – huge boulders of rocks from upstream, carrots, sugar cane, cabbages, even arrowroots and sweet potatoes – and deposit them right on the river, on our downstream plots near the end of the farm.
Our cabbages, arrowroots, and sugar cane would be uprooted and delivered to others downstream from us. We would fish on the rivers when it was not raining too hard, and the boys would even take a dip once in awhile – as dangerous as it was. We would walk barefoot in the rain, sliding in puddles and down slopes like we were on an ice rink. Our clothes were caked with red mud. Looking like walking mud statues, we would run home to undress and bathe outside with warmed up rain water.
Childhood memories of the rain’s soothing melody would lullaby me to sleep while sheets of water came down on the corrugated iron roof. The bed was always so warm on rainy nights; I would drift off to sleep with a smile, remembering how I skidded and landed on my bottom right in the middle of a puddle of water that looked like tea with milk. Every ridge had its own river or two. There were beautifully carved water pans, fed by small trickling streams from the rocks above. This is where we drew drinking water from when necessary.
In between the rainy seasons, when the rain had stopped in time for the harvest and fields were prepared for the next crop, the water in the drums would diminish. Women and children would then meet from opposite ridges to fill up the water cans and gossip before going back home. We never knew about water scarcity, and our lives never missed a beat.
Still, something changed when I was a teenager. People upstream started growing commercial crops. They diverted water to dams that they had created on their farms. Forests vanished as trees were indiscriminately cut to burn charcoal and make way for crops. Natural water catchment areas were cleared as well. Now, my home village does not look anything like the one I grew up in.
The rivers are hardly flowing, and many have dried up. Rain is not as predictable as it was then, and it does not fill up the rivers. As a result, families have started sinking individual boreholes in their yards. Each family in my village now owns a borehole or two. The sad thing is that the dry months are now more frequent, and some of these boreholes run out of water during such times. The families must then buy from the neighbours whose boreholes still have water.
Mpho and Mueni are living a very different life than I did at their age. The two girls seem to come from similar economic and climatic backgrounds; however, because of the availability of water in one girl’s life and the lack of it in the other, they are bound to live very different lives. Mueni might end up marrying early and have her children go through the same cycle if something does not change the situation.
Should the government or the NGO reach her village before she is too old, she might get a chance to join school and make it out of the rut. If it does not happen to help her in time, she would definitely wish that her children would find a better world and be able to enjoy one of life’s most important commodities. It is not a luxury; water is very important. Water is life. Water changes everything.