The Weight of Life

By Sarah Ross, NWNL Project Manager
Photos © Alison M Jones

INTRODUCTION  While in Ethiopia in 2005, NWNL Director Alison Jones witnessed health issues, known as fistulas faced by African girls and women tasked to carry heavy jugs of water. Her visit to Addis Ababa’s Fistula Hospital and research led to her essay on women expelled from their villages after suffering injuries and incontinence from obstructed childbirth. Now, Sarah Ross, our NWNL Project Manager, has chosen to update this story here as a NWNL photo-essay. 

NWNL Director, Alison Jones, often says, “The water story is a people story.” In this blog, “The water story is a woman’s story.” The need for fresh water is universal, yet easy access to clean and safe water is a human right that many still live without. During a 2005 expedition to Ethiopia, NWNL first investigated the health and social impacts of carrying water jugs from river to village, a responsibility left to women and children. With growing numbers of people, ongoing development, pollution, trans-boundary conflicts and climate change, the consequences of carrying water remain more prevalent today than ever.

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Every day, Naweti carries water and fodder near Lake Turkana, terminus of the Omo River.

As of 2016, about 3.36 million girls and 13.54 million women throughout Africa and Asia still fetch their household’s daily water supply.1 African women travel an average 3.7 miles a day collecting water and carry up to 100 lbs. of water daily back to their villages.2

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Unaware of the health risks, water gathering offers a chance to share time with friends.

In addition to detrimental health risks, the amount of time dedicated to providing water hinders the education and economic activity for young girls and women. In Africa, an average of 103 lbs (47 liters) is used per person for daily washing, drinking and cooking. In comparison, the UK averages 737 lbs (334 liters) per person per day and the US averages 1, 294 lbs (587 liters) per person per day.6 To provide enough water for an average African household, many girls take two to three trips for water each day.

In Tanzania’s Mara River Basin town of Tarime, Angel House Orphanage girls fetch water daily.

Providing water, along with other household duties, leaves very little time for alternative activities for women and girls, such as school and employment. As a result, many young girls are left uneducated and with limited opportunities for economic growth.  Their community and countries lack potential contributions from a large contingent of women and girls, who could otherwise assist in developmental progress toward a better future.

This girl is likely unaware of the risk of the weight of water to the development of her bones.

This restrictive relationship between women and water only adds to the vicious cycle of global inequality. Solutions for women’s poor health, too often tied to specific environmental, social and economic conditions, is a complex issue requiring understanding and help from all sectors. Indeed, the water story is a people story. 

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Even a four year old does her share of carrying water from the Masarua Dam Reservoir.

My interest in joining No Water No Life stemmed from the project’s interest in covering all aspects of global freshwater issues, especially those directly affecting the quality of human life. If you share the same concerns, below is a list of other organizations committed to resolving women and water issues:

Campaign to End Fistula 

Global Women’s Water Initiative

Water for Empowerment

Women for Water Partnership (WfWP)


  1. Graham, J. “An Analysis of Water Collection Labor among Women and Children in 24 Sub-Saharan African Countries.” Plos One, accessed August 28, 2019, via link
  2. Caruso, B. “Women Still Carry Most of the World’s Water.” The Conversation, accessed August 28, 2019, via link
  3. “10 Facts on Obstetric Fistula, Updated 2018” World Health Organization, accessed on September 4, 2019, via link
  4. Baker, G and Alison Jones. “Discovering Obstetric Fistulae in Ethiopia” NWNL, accessed on August 28, 2019, via link
  5. Causo, B.
  6. “Water a Critical Resource.” United Nations Population Fund, accessed September 4, 2019, via link 

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