Water Water will you make me ill today?

Water collection in Uganda

London and Cape Town are some of the most water stressed areas on our trip – sounds surprising? How can raining old London have less water than the deserts of Sudan? Water stress is about the amount of water available for the population, as it doesn’t rain as much as we all think it does in London and because London and the surrounding area has a massive population – there is only just enough water to go around. Sudan with its low population and the Nile means that water is plentiful (if you are close to the Nile that is). But “water Stress” doesn’t really show the whole story in Africa and isn’t the major problem like it is in the UK and South Africa. The major problem in Africa is often how to get hold of the available water – and making sure it
is safe.

We carry around 40 litres of water in the Landcruiser, unlike some of the “poshy” travellers – we don’t have massive built in tanks and automatic water purification systems. This, in some ways, is perhaps more inconvenient but it does help us understand some of the issues that the local population have in a greater way. Our 40 litres last 3 of us about 2-5 days depending on next availability of water. We have a priority of water use with personal drinking water at the top, then car, then washing ourselves, then washing dishes etc. So if we are low on water the dishes do not get washed! While the car needs a bit of water every so often, it is also the thing that makes our search for water much easier than many of the local population. On average women in developing countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to get water – often carrying 20-30 litres at anyone time. In southern Ethiopia we saw girls as young as 8 with 10 litre containers strapped to their backs. The car makes our life easy, firstly because we don’t really have to carry the water anywhere – but also if one source is dry or not good we can always drive to the next place.

Water Carriers on the Landcruiser

Sometimes we wash the dishes (Speedo’s are optional)

Washing the dishes

German Bikers need a wash every so often!

Washing the German

Currently in the UK, the average amount of water that a person uses is around 170litres a day, in the US it can be as high as 190litres, much of it is flushed down the drain with every toilet flush. In Africa we have come across people who will use less than 5 litres a day for all their needs.

Where water is in good supply – everything gets washed, from the car to camels!

Washing the car on the Nile

Washing the family Camal

The most difficult region to get water was the Omerate region of Southern Ethiopia, travelling towards Turkana into Kenya – we had to make our water last in this area! We were lucky though as this year there had been rains, unlike previous years of draught which had caused much conflict in the area.

Plastic containers are transported from the main towns to the smallest villages (where the cost more)

Plastic Containers

Sudan on the Nile was probably the easiest place to get water. In Islam, Wudu (the wash before prayer) is very important, this means there are washing stations everywhere. There are also communal drinking stations everywhere – kept up by the local community. The terracotta pots are slightly porous so the water is even cool!

Water In Sudan

Further away from the Nile it was a little more difficult, fresh water was far more scares in the Nuba mountains regions and towards Eritrea and the coast.

The low water mark in Dinder National Park (Sudan) is a constant threat to wildlife.

The low water level in Dinder National Park

Everywhere we have been on the eastern coast (Red sea and the Indian Ocean) fresh water has been less than easy to get hold of. 97% of the worlds water is salty, 2% is locked up in snow and ice; which leaves only 1% for us to drinking, grow crops, use for industry and wash. It is the same fresh water that we drink today the the dinosaurs drank thousands of years ago, it has just been recycled so many times.

Ice and snow on Mont Blanc

Salt Lake in Tunisia

Salt Lake in Tunisia

Salt Lake Tunisia

On the Sinai Peninsula all of the fresh water was trucked by road from the higher mountainous area to the trendy resorts of Taba and Dahab. The impact of this is metallic tasting water and rapidly dropping wells in the mountain villages. We were shown wells that should have been almost full, but water had be well over 40 meters away. Date palms (a source of income and shade) were dying out rapidly and if date palms cannot survive – neither will the villages.

In Diani on the Kenya coast rain water was collected from the roofs of buildings as it was seen as better drinking water than the water piped in from the mountains. All the camping spots we stayed in on the Indian ocean had slightly salt water showers (a little less salty than the sea).

Going into Northern Kenyan there are occasional hand water pumps (often with a little USAid sticker on them stating “from the hearts of American people” – nothing like a bit propaganda!)

It is donkey work getting the water from the Lake

In most parts of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania it was never that hard for us to get hold of good quality water, but in the rural areas we did see people walking with water containers. There was once or twice (particularly on the coast in Tanzania where we paid 20p or so to have our cans filled.

In Malawi the lake provides beautiful clear water which was always plentiful. There are a growing number of taps and treatment plants.

I wonder, however if in the big cities we have lost the ‘spiritual’ connection with water that people once had. In Cairo (for example – could be London) it seams that the Nile is just something to build a bridge over.

The Nile in Cairo

Where as in the past the Nile was held under even greater importance in the old Cities, such as Luxor.

The Nile in Luxor

So supply of water, with a vehicle, is OK for travellers – but some of quality of the water was less than good. On the Sinai peninsula in Egypt we are reasonably certain that the water that was trucked to Dahab made us ill. It was the worse illness we have had on the trip – Ryan was down for 3 days, Shaun and I for somewhat less, but still bad.

When we arrived in Ethiopia, we asked around about the quality of the water. Even the people who worked in the water treatment works in Gondor told us not to drink the water from the taps – so out came our little MRS water purifier. This was the first time we really had used it on the trip, but I think it probably saved us from serious problems! The Konso area in the south of Ethiopia has a reputation for some of the most difficult places to get clean water in the world (our purifier kills everything). With the high population density, only small reliable streams and extreme poverty – water born disease is a real problem for locals. While it appears to be available everywhere, soap is often a luxary for some – hands, dishes, clothes etc may only get washed once in a while.

Toilets are often “interesting”


In stark contrast Muslim Sudan (and I think religion does play a big part in this) soap and the “pressure” to wash your hands is everywhere. The ceramic pots with the one communal metal cup where everywhere. The communal metal cup was also present at the meal table. Not sure how much they ever got washed, and how many peoples lips they touched a day – but we didn’t ever get ill from it. Many people also take there water through tea!

Taking Tea in Sudan

Tea Ladies in Sudan

In Malawi, the lake is crystal clear (in most places) and Kyaking back from Mumbo island (which is 10km from the shoreline) I was more than happy to drink the water straight from the lake. But close to the shoreline things are changing. You will often see people washing, themselves, pots and babies with diarrhea on the shore line. Just a couple of meters away you will see people filling up water containers – potentially to drink or cook with. In most villages there are taps, with water from newly built water treatment plants. But people often don’t use it as the taps are slow and the water has a slight chlorine taste to it. Perhaps over time they will use the taps, because they will see that over time the people who do, get ill far less often.

If you are drinking straight from a river, you don’t know what has been swimming (or worse) up stream

Kenyan Cattle off for a swimWith more infrastructure brings higher cost to water. Many believe that water is from God, and therefor should not cost. But pipes, pumps and ultraviolet purification all costs money. Global water Intelligence offer some interesting price comparisons; Glasgow in Scotland has one of the highest rates of water at $2.50 per 100 gallons, while in Libya Gadafi makes sure that it is free. Kigali is increasing keeping to its name of being an expensive city with water at $0.24, while in Addis ($0.09) and Johannesburg ($0.18) it is more affordable.

To help people afford quality in poor areas there are a number of NGO’s that help, WaterAid in the UK instals helps to install community owned and run pumps. GTZ (German NGO) often are involved with larger projects for towns and village. I had an interesting conversation with one GTZ worker, who was annoyed with the national government in the country he was working in – because all they wanted was systems the same as Europe – where more simple smaller systems would have given more people access to clean water.

So whats the link between Solar and water?…

Well I know that WaterAid was helpful to SolarAid when there were first setting up – but it goes further than this. Solar power has the potential to power pumps in rural areas where diesel powered pumps could be expensive to run (and potentially unreliable). In Tanzanian SolarAid are looking at installing a solar powered pump for a school – they are just looking for extra funding (donate here! = ) Here is a Solar powered water pump (actually on Mumbo Island in Malawi)

On the otherside of the equasion, water is often used to create power – so far Dam projects have displaced up to 80million people world wide, often resulting in conflict and lowering water quality. Bilharzia was rare on the Nile river until the Aswan dam was built. Now it is a real problem. Here a new dam is being built in Central Sudan.

A new dam is built in Central Sudan

Overall, I thought that water would be much more of a problem more of the time, but there are certainly developments in many places. Having a vehicle does make life easy in the rural areas!

Cripes this must be the longest article on the site! I need a drink…

I started writing this article after loosing our cap for one of our jerry cans – it made me think about all the different places it had been filled up with water! Luckly for us the guys at wavian associates sent a new cap out with my sister when she came to Tanzania – check out there stuff here

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