The fight for water in Zambia

I stepped into the kitchen in a Zambian village.

This kitchen is outside with a variety of tables, buckets and stools. A woman is plucking feathers from one of the chickens we just saw running around the compound. On the ground is a stainless steel bowl beneath the chicken catching feathers and blood. Ducklings stumble into this bowl to lap up the chicken blood and eat the feathers. I had no idea ducks had a carnivorous side to them. A dog stands a few feet from the bowl with an infinite stare, hoping for something of substance will fall into the bowl.

This chicken will feed the local workers who are drilling a water well for the village.

Other women are boiling the water in large pots over an open fire and preparing the vegetables for the men that are drilling a water well for their families. The kitchen is set up between two mud huts for shade. A few dogs, so skinny their ribs are defined, circle around the veggies on the ground begging for any available scraps.

The Situation

The nearest water source for this village is walking 2.5 miles away to the Zambezi River, which isn’t a clean source but it’s the only available one.

This water crisis is something I can’t fully wrap my mind around.

Water is needed for vegetables to grow, animals to live, to clean and cook food, clean dirty dishes, bathe children and adults, brush their teeth, not to mention they need drinking water to survive. Keep in mind, there’s no local tap to get all of this water from so the only source is to walk 5 miles to haul only a few gallons at a time. The women get the water in the villages, not the men. The teenager in the photo below said she had already made three trips to the river that day and it was 11am. That’s 15 miles for three – 40 lb bucket of water balanced on her head while walking through varying terrain.
Fresh water is around 70 feet deep below the surface for most villages. If the village wants a water well, the Zambian government charges a price the locals could never afford. When a village actually does produce the money for this well, it takes the government over a year to actually drill the well.
Reaching A Generation (RAG) is an organization based in South Africa but is one of the only non-profit organizations drilling in Western Zambia. The government heavily taxes RAG every time they drive the drilling rig through the Zambian checkpoints with the necessary construction materials to build each of the wells.

The cost of each well is substantially greater than other African countries because of these checkpoints.

RAG works with the locals and they scout out the villages located farthest from the river to determine where the wells need to be drilled. They know the demographic of each village, the distance to a water source (river or neighboring well) and then they drill in the most needed areas.

The roadblocks they face is when organizations request their wells are drilled in areas with a population greater than “X”.

This reduces the impact RAG is trying to make with certain villages they know they absolutely need a well. Casualties of a omen and children are higher in some villages because their water source is where there is a greater alligator and hippo population but they may have a smaller village which is under the population threshold some organizations require.

RAG is able to drill the hole for the well, assemble the pump and pour a concrete basin all in the same day.

It starts with determining where the water flowed underground. This was not done with instruments or digital devices, but with Simba (one of our guides) holding two metal rods that would move when the current was beneath him. I saw him do this process four times and I doubted the process but we struck water every time. He says he hasn’t hit a dry patch yet!
The drilling rig is connected to a compressor which is the main source for blowing the debris out of the borehole while drilling. The hole could be 90′ deep and chunks of rock, sand and water are able to be pushed out of the hole. The top layer of sand usually takes just minutes to drill through and next is the rock. Sometimes this rock takes hours to drill through. Usually, there’s a layer of mud and the first time we struck mid, we (Americans) thought we already got to the fresh water. There were still a couple of hours until we see fresh water.
Each 13′ drilling rod gets manually locked into the next one as they go into the ground. The different drill bits need to be greased and connected. The mud that erupts from the ground covers anything that’s around the drilling rig. This isn’t a clean process and we are currently drilling for accessible water.

During our 6 day stay, we helped drill 4 wells. We weren’t necessary for the drilling but it was a great experience learning about the process. The real experience is talking to the locals and hear their stories. Men weren’t around during the day so the only interactions we had were with women and children. This was also difficult because our translator was one of the main drilling crew members. He could only translate when we weren’t drilling, so we had 5 minute windows to hurry a conversation with a shy local who’s starring at an oversized camera…

What can be done?

Organizations like Reaching a Generation are doing some incredible ground work. They’re adding community centers in the villages and employing teachers as well as drilling wells. The money spent on the trip to drill wells is better spent drilling the wells, unless you are looking forward to engaging with the local people. Drilling is a long process and during that time is when you can be engaging.
If I were to do it again, we would absolutely need a translator that isn’t working the drill. I want to learn about their culture, their business, their hopes, their dreams (besides a water well), their goals and desires. We could propel a dream of theirs simply by listening to them and encouraging them. Americans don’t have to provide everything for people in 3rd world countries. Having a real conversation might change their lives just as much as fresh water.

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