Water is…a childhood

When a child has access to clean drinking water close to home, they have a chance to go to school, to learn, to play with their friends and to have a childhood.

Yet today, around 2.1 billion people don’t have access to safe water. Many children spend hours every day walking to collect water, sometimes missing out on a chance to go to school. This journey can be dangerous. The jerry cans of water the children carry can be heavy, normally around 20 kilos.

For some, this daily routine to collect water can take over their lives. They fear attack, dread walking such long distances, and miss out on a chance to go to school or to play with their friends. Their childhoods slip away, as their days revolve around fetching water.

This is what sisters Eva and Catherine told me when I met them last month in South Sudan. The two girls were among 4 million people who have been displaced by conflict. Like many other families, they now live in an area that does not have enough clean water for everyone.

In the dry season, the girls walk for at least two hours, twice every day, to fetch water. That’s 4 hours out of their days just getting water. The walk back home is tough, especially for older sister Eva who lost the lower part of her arm when she was a child. They struggle with the weight of the jerry cans and the heat of the sun.

The water they collect is from the Nile River. It is not clean, and contains diseases that make many children in their community sick.

Two girls walking toward the camera on a dusty road
Eva and Catherine Philip, 8, on their way home. The journey is not always safe: Many girls are at risk of attack. Globally, 263 million people spend over 30 minutes collecting water every day.

 When I asked older sister Eva what she would do if she didn’t have to spend so long collecting water every day, she said she would go to school. Her dream is to be a teacher when she grows up. Her younger sister Catherine said she would spend time cooking, or playing a game with her sister.

This year, UNICEF is working to bring clean water to around 800,000 people across South Sudan. This includes a water treatment plant in the area where Eva and Catherine live – meaning the girls will have a chance to go back to school, and to do the things they love. At the ages of 8 and 10, children should have a chance to play, to learn and to have a childhood.

Philippa Lysaght works in advocacy for UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene team.

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