Finding safe water in Rwanda

  • A man waits his turn to get water at one of Mayange’s wells. He uses a wooden stick to sling the jerry cans to the either side of the bike like saddle bags to distribute the weight.
  • Boys fetch water and play soccer early morning in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Boys and their bikes at one of the village wells in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Teenagers use rubber strips to rig their bicycle to support carrying the heavy load of six full jerry cans of water in Mayange, Rwanda. Before the Millennium water extension project people would have to walk anywhere from five to 15km for water.
  • Alice Ingabire walks home with a full jerry can after fetching fresh water from the well, Mayange, Rwanda.
  • People wait as a girl does her best to fill as many jerry cans as fast as possible at a busy well in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • A boy waits his turn to have his cans filled with water in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Bicycles and jerry cans at one of Mayange’s wells.
  • People pay 10 Rwandan franc (less than 1 US cent) for 20 liters in Mayange, Rwanda. At the end of the month the EWSA (Rwandan Energy, Water & Sanitation) comes to collect the tariff.
  • Jerry cans being filled with clean water in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Boys wait next to two full jerry cans of water in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Best friends 15 year-old Chantal Iradukunda and 16 year-old Alice Ingabire fetch water together at a private well in Mayange, Rwanda. The local public well was dry that day.
  • Best friends 15 year-old Chantal Iradukunda and 16 year-old Alice Ingabire walk through Alice’s neighborhood on the way to fetch water in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Boys wait for water at an empty well in the early morning in Mayange, Rwanda.
  • Class of girls eagerly wait to be called on by their teacher Alphonsine Kaneza at the the United Nations Millennium Villages Project (MVP) at Mayange, Rwanda. The Girls House (sometimes called the changing room) at the G.S. Kamabuye school is a separate facility reserved just for girls as a safe place to learn about issues around hygiene and menstruation.
  • Posters dot the walls at G.S. Kamabuye school reminding the children about personal hygiene in Mayange, Rwanda. Here, the poster reads “I, pledge to wash my hands with soap and water every day on 5 occasions. High 5.” The Girls House (sometimes called the changing room) at the G.S. Kamabuye school is a separate facility reserved just for girls as a safe place to learn about issues around hygiene and menstruation.
  • Students demonstrate in front of the class the correct way to wash their hands in Mayange, Rwanda. The Girls House (sometimes called the changing room) at the G.S. Kamabuye school is a separate facility reserved just for girls as a safe place to learn about issues around hygiene and menstruation.
  • An outhouse at the G.S. Kamabuye school in Mayange, Rwanda. Toilets for the girls is crucial to their education because previously girls would miss school when they were menstruating as they had limited access to  private, clean places to take care of themselves.  
  • Teacher Alphonsine Kaneza teaches her class of girls about menstruation and human anatomy and sanitation. The Girls House (sometimes called the changing room) at the G.S. Kamabuye school is a separate facility reserved just for girls as a safe place to learn about issues around hygiene and menstruation.
  • Community Development Coordinator for Millennium Villages Project Jannette Mukabalisa (not pictured) teaches the girls a learning game about keeping clean during menstruation at the G.S. Kamabuye School in Mayange, Rwanda.

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Clean water is at the core of human well-being. With water there can be good nutrition, sanitation and health. Without it, there is poverty and disease.

Throughout the world, roughly two million children under the age of five die because of diarrhea and pneumonia – two diseases easily prevented by safe drinking water, sanitation and proper hygiene.

Global progress in increasing access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation has been mixed, and progress in sub-Saharan Africa lags behind much of the world. Many challenges still persist, including the variability of available fresh water, the institutional capacities to manage it, large financing gaps, and the needed mechanisms to sustain appropriate technologies. If these challenges are not met, the burden of disease is likely to increase in the poorest countries.

And water collection from remote sources places an enormous burden on women and young children. It limits their participation in employment and education. Estimates suggest that every $1 invested to improve water and sanitation brings benefits in the range of between $4 and $34 (WHO/UNICEF, 2008).

When the Millennium Villages Project first came to Mayange in Rwanda, access to safe water and sanitation was extremely limited. The project has since worked with the local community on several water and sanitation programs designed to increase access to safe, reliable water sources and improved sanitation for households and public institutions. The project simultaneously has grown local capacity to maintain and manage these facilities.

All together, the Millennium Villages Project is working with nearly half a million people in ten African countries, helping them achieve economic prosperity and sustained growth through an approach that takes into account health, education, agriculture, business development, infrastructure along with water and sanitation.

Since the project began, more than 330 miles of new pipes have been installed to bring safe water points to homes, schools, and clinics – improving overall access and reducing the amount of water to be carried manually each day.  On top of this, many new boreholes, water pumps, rain water harvesting and protected springs have been built throughout the project. Despite great advancements in water and sanitation infrastructure, these improvements alone are not enough to reduce the disease burden attributed to inadequate water and sanitation resources. 

Hand-washing with soap is one of the most cost-effective public health interventions that has been shown to significantly reduce the transmission of infectious diseases, including diarrhea and pneumonia. Working closely with partners at Unilever and Lifebuoy soap, the Millennium Villages Project has developed programs to make hand washing routine at specific times throughout the day to maximize hygiene.

The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program (WASH) is one of the best examples of the Millennium Villages Project’s integrated approach where the core sectors—health, education, infrastructure, and business development—work collaboratively in order to achieve maximum results. For example, with improved access to water and sanitation we can reduce the barriers and increase the number of girls attending school, getting the world closer to our goal of achieving universal primary education. The goals of the WASH sector include reducing child mortality and under-nutrition by preventing transmission of WASH-related diseases (e.g., diarrhea, pneumonia, skin and eye infections), and increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water and hand washing facilities, and increasing sustainable access to improved sanitation.

Kyu-Young Lee is Associate Director of Communications at the Earth Institute, Columbia University in New York.  

Thomas Prior is an award-winning photographer based in New York.

For more feature photography, go to www.msnbc.com/photography

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