The United Nations says that 1,000 children die every day due to preventable diarrheal diseases caused by a lack of access to clean water and sanitation.
In countries like Ethiopia, less than 20 percent of the population have access to safe drinking water.
According to the UNICEF, regardless of the health implications of the lack of safe drinking water, agriculture, which is the major source of livelihood for about 80 percent of the population who live in the rural areas, are affected. In Afghanistan, Micronesia, and neighbouring Eritrea, the water situation is worse off.
Charlie Uldahl Christensen left a job and family in Denmark in 2015, pledging to walk on foot across Africa and Europe supplying those who need it the most, lasting water solutions by means of his project, Walking for Water (W4W).
His goal was to tour 30 different countries by 2019, leaving local communities he visited with the infrastructure necessary to ensure constant supply of clean, potable water.
Three years later, Christensen is a little halfway through the 30 countries he set out to cover on foot.
“In fact, I initially thought that the journey would take two and a half years in total. That was made from an estimation that I would walk 30 kilometres per day, 6 days a week,” he says.
But since he spearheads the sourcing of sponsors for the infrastructural developments, he spends sometime in the capital cities of the countries he visits running administrative operations, writing and trying to reach corporate sponsors for the project. This has taken up a lot of time.
Currently in Ghana, which will be the 17th country he has visited so far, he has 13 more to go. Nigeria is number 20 on his list.
There’s no such thing as free time
Christensen first began to take note of the critical water challenge in the continent in a village in Tanzania where he had been volunteering in 2013 for six months. Members of the local community had to walk 19 km everyday to get to the nearest source of water. After returning to Denmark, he began working with a local newspaper as a planning and logistics personnel and also a journalist.
“I am not educated journalist, and though I did write some articles my main task was in planning and logistics and included quite a lot of standby time on the office,” he says.
“The idea just came to me and kind of couldn’t slip my mind again.”
To leave the safety of home and familiar spaces not only to explore new territories but to make a significant journey that affects the lives of thousands can be daunting. However, he wrapped up his job at a local newspaper and made the first trip from Denmark to Germany.
“At first I thought it was an irrational and a well, kind of crazy idea. But at the same time, it was extremely intriguing because it combined an option of living the lifestyle of a full-time adventurer and travel journalist with an opportunity to achieve what I had made my life goal – to get water for the Tanzanian village.”
“That was when I know that I had found my purpose and at first Walking for Water (W4W) was only meant as a mean to raise funds for this particular community.”
The power women of Lengasti
In Lengasti, South of the mountain Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, an estimated 8,000 people and thousands of livestock are in utter lack of clean water. The nearest clean water source is about 12 km away.
Two elderly women are sitting in colourful traditional wrappers surrounded by a rocky plain and browning green shrubs.
They travel about 20 km every other day, away to a nearby village to get clean water, setting off at 4 am in the morning and returning sometimes as late as 3 pm in the afternoons. They get no help from their male counterparts.
“The tradition put this responsibility into our hands,” one tells an interviewer in Maa, the language of the Maasai people.
In delivery rooms during childbirth, it is not unusual for midwives to clean up with dry clothes, using cow urine to sanitise their hands and clothes afterwards due to lack of water.
The trips to the nearest water source is made on donkeys with each one being able to carry two jerry cans of water. A single trip on five donkeys guarantees about 200 litres of water for one household. If you own no donkeys, you forfeit 80 litres of what you’ve fetched to the owner of the donkeys you’ve used.
“Everything about our lives will change if we have water,” the other says, adding that their faith remains their only solace that the situation will ever change.
In Leyan in Liberia, Tulun in Sierra Leone, W4W has completed projects that now make life a lot easier for communities in these areas.
A pump connecting the clean water miles away from the clean water source to the village will cost about $19,500 and Christensen wants to help the community raise the money to make this happen. Funding for the project in Lengasti has surpassed the halfway mark at 64 percent.
“But it has been a long hard struggle to find a head sponsor for this comprehensive project, and in Sierra Leone a guy contacted me about another community in need of clean water,” Christensen said.
“And I decided to change the tactics, and to start a smaller project in each country on my route, in order to create some success and integrity around the organisation, that might make it easier to attract a sponsor for the much bigger Tanzania project as well.
“By now, we are almost there by the means of various smaller donations and I feel comfortable that the project in Tanzania will be implemented within this year.”
Push push, tick-tock
The water problem bites him too as he tours these countries experiencing first-hand the effects of unsanitary water intake and the consequences of its lack. Alongside his luggage in a mule also called push-push, he has to log jerry cans of water along as well.
“On my Mule (push-push) I have several containers with water, so I can carry up to 20 litres around. Most places that is more than plenty, but some places, like in the Sahara, I had to economise with the water, which was extremely challenging in the brutal heat.
“But it is an experience that somewhat strengthened my sympathy for the cause I’m fighting for. If you don’t have water, it is hard to focus on anything else.
In a global society where so many have too much to waste, Christensen says it is a disgrace that there are still people who die of lack of the most basic of needs.
His trip across West Africa has been good and filled with very hospitable and nice-behaving locals.
“And honestly, my biggest challenge is to avoid being rude, because I don’t have time to stop and talk every time someone calls me. I would never get anywhere.
“But sometimes this may leave an arrogant impression, which I do not wish, for people have really been sweet everywhere I go.”
Sadly, he has been warned against coming into Nigeria, the giant of Africa whose voice has weakened over the past decades by subsequent bad governments with little economic vision and plagued by growing insecurity issues that are threatening to spiral out of control.
“Apparently you guys are said to be dangerous,” he says with a smile.
“I hope off course that you all will help me to change this prejudice,” he adds indicating that there are still hopes he makes it to the country in the number 20 spot on his list.
“At least, I will do my best to meet you all with the same trust and openness that I’ve met the other African countries with, and which haven’t been let down so far.”
A drop for a face
One of the ways the internet has made life a lot richer for mankind is in the fact that we can now form communities around worthy causes a whole lot faster online. Thanks to platforms like GoFundMe, millions of people across the globe can now support a child with cancer or a struggling couple who want a dream honeymoon away from the kids with amounts ranging from as little as a cent to millions of dollars.
However, while he has a semblance of a GoFundMe arrangement for the W4W project, Christensen has adopted a rather interesting approach to getting sponsors for his water projects across Africa.
By tapping into the heart of businesses across the globe, he invites corporate organisations to fund his projects through their CSR channels and in exchange, offers them premium advertising opportunities both on the project assets and the project website.
“I generally like to offer a service rather than begging for a contribution, and more importantly I think that if I can prove this concept functional, then others will be able to reuse it, and the overall difference we make will be far greater,” he adds.
“Whereas an international organisation might find online promotion on W4W’s social media platforms, which reaches people in more than 50 countries useful, a local African enterprise selling cement or spring water etc. are probably more interested in having me advertising for them vocally and visually in conventional national radio and TV interviews or physically with a sign on my Mule,” he explains.
His GoFundMe-type account on a Danish crowdfunding page called Charii.dk helps individuals contribute to projects that stir them from the project website.
“My focus isn’t really on the crowdfunding platforms though,” he reinstates.
“Again, I’d rather offer companies advertisement in return for their contribution, than begging something for nothing.”
Any drop home?
“In each country, I get in touch with a local NGO in the water sector. I do that because they know where in the country the need is biggest, and also because I need someone to take care of the practicalities of implementing the pump, as I might already be out of the country again when the money is raised.
However, he says he gets requests from individuals about communities where W4W intervention is sorely needed.
“People are welcome to write W4W if they would like to draw our attention towards a specific community in need of water,” he adds.
Information like how close (or far away) the nearest water source is for the community, the number of lives their intervention will touch, and an estimated price of the cost of the project makes any case stronger and allows for more consideration since they cannot get to every request he receives.
“Everyone should be able to get a local entrepreneur out to make a quotation on a solution – and yes, we are hiring local entrepreneurs to do the work.”
Long after he is gone and with the help of the local NGO, maintaining and repairing the pumps is easier.
“I also ask the local communities to make a water board responsible for up keeping the pumps and to collect small funds from the users, for spare parts etc.”
How humid is the future?
Climate changes are indisputable playing a role in the increasing droughts across the world.
As more greenhouse gas emissions are released into the air, and air temperatures continue to rise, more moisture evaporates from land and water bodies. Warmer temperatures also mean an increase in evaporation in plant resulting in increased precipitation, which would be considered a win, right?
Wrong. According to a 2013 report titled Nature Climate Change (Trenberth et. al., 2013) depending on the prevalent nature of the environment, there are no win win situations. Increased precipitation in already humid environments will lead to increased moisture with the risk of flooding and for dry regions, there is an increased dryness which prolongs droughts or worsens it since there is not much moisture to effectively propel the cycle.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the worst part yet. As well as a humanist I consider myself an environmentalist, and living in the nature as I do, I feel strongly committed to this cause,” Christensen says.
“Therefore is it also among Walking for Water’s (W4W) visions to take part in the green revolution by prioritizing sustainable water supply systems.
“Personally I am vegetarian and always collect my un-biological waste to throw out in designated containers. It saddens me to see how little people generally tend to care for the environment here in Africa though.
But with challenges like the lack of water he is trying to solve, and a host of others, saving nature does not come nearly as vital to an average African.
“I hope that before it’s too late, all of us will realise the serious environmental challenges ahead of us, and change our ways in a united fight for a greener future for the salvation of all of us, and not least for the generations to come.”
“A Chinese proverb says: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is today,” he adds.
When I asked about the role of governments or lack of their role as it seems in the provision of basics such as water to the people who vote them in power, he was quick to point out that Africans were always quick to label foreign exploitation as the scapegoat.
“In a democracy, the people have the government they deserve,” he states.
“As long as African countries aren’t able to elect leaders who regard their duty to the people that have chosen them and they are entrusted to protect above the number of figures in their personal bank accounts, you will never see the end of exploitation.”
“In a country where people are dying from the lack of basic needs, a leader who steals from his people is making himself guilty in far worse crimes than simple theft.”
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Image Credits: The Trent