The World Resources Institute reports that more than a billion people live in water-scarce regions around the world. Many of them are in developing nations that lack basic clean water and sanitation—and others are in American cities where aging infrastructure and mismanagement have left people unable to rely on the water that flows from their taps.
By Wilfred Charles
When I was a year old, our village, named Mitawa, in southern Malawi, suffered from famine. Without enough water, our village of nearly 10,000 couldn’t grow crops and didn’t have enough food to go around. Women used to fight for water when they went to collect it from the wells. I was hungry and underweight. Many kids were. I never want my wife and four children to suffer like that.
For decades, Malawi has experienced droughts, made worse by the effects of El Niño. Without water, we can’t grow the food we need to survive. And we didn’t think we could do anything about it.
In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development taught us that irrigation farming could supply water to our farms. With this system, we would be able to increase the level of the water table, keep the soil from eroding, and water our crops. That year, we began our watershed development project.
First, we needed to dig a big canal to collect the water. Pipes would divert water from the Lingoni River into the canal. Then, gravity would help the water flow to the fields in the village. So we began looking for volunteers for the project. In the first days, I was very happy: 296 farmers registered to help.
We quickly learned it was very hard work. We started by building a dam across the river with boulders and mortar that we mixed from sand. After that, we marked the route of the canal with wooden pegs.
We worked by hand using hoes, shovels, and picks. We dug water channels along where we marked the route and lined them with boulders and sand mortar to prevent erosion. In some sections, we placed pipes that would be used to convey water underground and covered them with soil. Our main canal is about a mile long. We also dug secondary shallow canals so that water could reach different parts of the village.
When our volunteers realized how difficult the project was, they began to give up. Soon, only six of us were left.
But our small group was determined. I had faith through reading the Bible that whatever one decides to do through prayers everything is possible. People in the village made fun of us. They thought we were crazy! Even my wife thought the project wouldn’t work. But we didn’t quit. It took us three years. During that time, we received food rations for our labor, but no money. It was strictly volunteer. We finished in 2013.
Once the canal was built, water began to flow through the pipes and trenches, and then to the crops. I’ll never forget that day when water first began to reach our fields. It was like a dream come true. We never thought we would have this gift of water in our fields, and now the land is also protected from soil erosion when the rainy season brings floods.
Today, we are able to harvest crops twice a year, even during droughts. We grow maize, sorghum, cassava, pigeon peas, tomatoes, and vegetables. On the fields close to the river banks, farmers can even grow rice. Women are able to get water from the wells at any time of the year. There is no fighting.
Irrigation farming has helped us a lot. We can sell some of our harvest and use it to better our lives. We are able to send our children to school and pay for their uniforms and fees. We can store our excess food, so that we have enough in our reserves. Now I can see that the future for my kids is bright.
Water has made all the difference.
Wilfred Charles is a farmer and pastor who helped his village, Mitawa in Malawi, build an irrigation system to enable it to withstand drought.
By Jeneyah McDonald
A 16-ounce water bottle is my new standard of measurement.
I know how many it takes to fill up any pan I own. Cooking a bag of frozen vegetables takes one bottle. Spaghetti takes five. A pitcher of Kool-Aid for the kids requires seven. I can easily use eight cases of 16-ounce bottles on dinner for our family of four. These are the kinds of things you know when you can’t trust your water.
We use bottled water for everything—brushing our teeth, washing dishes, making coffee, filling a tub.
We’ve seen neighborhood pets get sick and die from drinking the tap water. Parents automatically put bottled water in kids’ backpacks because they can’t drink the water at school. In the summer, swimming is off limits because we can’t fill up the pool. My two boys can’t run under the sprinkler or drink out of the water hose. Basic rites of childhood are gone.
You hardly ever think about all the ways you take water for granted. But I live in Flint, Michigan. Unlike most places in America, our water isn’t safe.
A few years ago we were in the news headlines. In April 2014, the city of Flint began getting its water from the Flint River instead of Detroit to save money. The new water wasn’t treated properly and corroded the city’s iron water mains. That led to iron, lead, and other toxins leaching into the water supply.
The city switched back in October the next year, but the damage was done and the city didn’t fix the bad pipes that were causing the problem.
In the beginning, the brownish, light tan water was scary. It smelled like sewage. I’d run a bath, then be afraid to get in. The neighbors noticed the same thing. A couple of weeks later, the city told us to stop drinking the water.
But we had already seen effects. All my house plants died and I had to throw them away. Friends got rashes and had breathing problems. My older son, Justice, who’s now 9, has eczema and the water aggravated it like we’d never seen before. He loves bath time, but I couldn’t let him play in the tub. I had to tell him the water was poison so he’d know I was serious about avoiding it.
I thought fixing the problem would be easy, but when the city started handing out water that fall in 2014, it hit me: This is how it’s going to be from now on. In 2015, tests by the EPA showed dangerous levels of lead in the water in our homes.
It wasn’t easy to get enough water. We’d have to stand in long, long lines for hours and then only get a case or two. That’s just not enough.
As a home visitor with the school district, I visit families with small children and see firsthand the effects of the water. We know exposure to lead can lead to behavioral disorders, impaired cognition, hearing problems and delayed puberty in children. I see a lot of children developing autism, including my 5-year-old, Josiah. I see language and developmental delays. But no one will confirm that it’s related to our water.
The city says the pipes should all be replaced this year. They also say the water we have now is safe to drink. But how can you trust that answer when something as basic as water has been taken away?
Flint is 100,000 residents strong, living in the most sophisticated country in the world, and we can’t get clean water. We’re in Michigan, surrounded by four great lakes, and we don’t have clean water. We sent a spaceship to the ends of the earth and I can’t get clean water in my house.
And I still pay for it. My water bill is about $190 a month for our 900-square-foot house with no leaks when I’m the only one in our family who bathes every day, with filters on my shower, and washes clothes once a week.
I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable drinking the water. Right now, I have no faith that it will ever be clean again.
Jeneyah McDonald is a school district home visitor and mother in Flint, Michigan.