World Water Day: Shocking stories from the frontlines of the worldwide water crisis

A man carries jugs to fetch water from a hole in the sandy riverbed in Makueni County, Kenya, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.
A man carries jugs to fetch water from a hole in the sandy riverbed in Makueni County, Kenya, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Copyright AP Photo/Brian Inganga
By Ruth Wright with AP
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From dried-up rivers to poisoned water, people around the world are struggling to meet a basic need.

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As the world warms at unpredented speed due to human-caused climate change, fresh water for drinking, cooking and cleaning is becoming harder to get for many people.

That’s because the warming world is leading to erratic rainfall patterns, extreme heat and periods of drought - on top of decades of bad water management and extractive policies around the world. The United Nations estimates that around 2.2 billion people worldwide don't have access to safely managed drinking water.

This World Water Day, journalists from around the world interviewed some of the people struggling to get fresh water.

Lime, Peru: Lower vs. middle class

Justina Flores, a 50-year-old grandmother, lives in a hilly Lima, Peru, suburb with no running water. With some of the water she gets from the government, she washes the clothes of her family of six by hand, and then reuses it to wash the dog or dumps it on the ground outside to keep the dust from coming up and into her house.

Peru’s government gives potable water to 1.5 million of its poorest residents, like Flores, living in the hills. Giant tankers filled with water lug up the steep roads, and the scarce resource often sparks conflicts between neighbors.

Flores tries hard to use as little water as possible for all her daily activities. She has an old washing machine, but washing by hand means she can save about 45 litres (12 gallons) of water per wash.

She and her family get about 3,000 litres (790 gallons) for all their washing, cooking and cleaning each week, while in San Isidro, the richest area of ​​the capital, a family of equal size uses an average of 11,700 litres (3,090 gallons) per week coming from piped water, according to official data.

Flores has been a domestic worker in the homes of wealthier families since she was a child, so she’s seen this disparity firsthand.

“In those houses you can bathe as many times as you want. Here, at most, it’s twice a week,” she said, as she looked outside her window at buildings covering the hills.

Jakarta, Indonesia: Dirty government water in the sinking capital

In the vast archipelago nation of Indonesia, access to clean water is uncertain - even in the country’s most-developed city of Jakarta, where over 10 million people live.

Since she was a young girl, Devi Putri Eka Sari, now a 37-year-old mother of three, has had to buy water from the vendors going up and down the narrow paved streets in her lower-income neighborhood - even after the government installed water pipes and pumps pulling water from the ground.

Government water isn’t reliable, she says: Sometimes it just drips from the tap when she turns it on. Even if it did flow regularly, she wouldn’t dare use it for drinking.

“It’s not healthy. It’s filled with bacteria that will make you sick,” she said. “It smells like a pool, like chemicals.”

Her fear about bacteria isn’t unfounded: Seven out of 10 Indonesian households consume drinking water contaminated with E. coli, according to the World Health Organization.

Instead Sari, like millions of Indonesians across the country, buy water in large refillable containers or single-use packaged plastic bottles. They’re easy to find, but create large amounts of trash in the cities’ already plastic-choked waterways.

“It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life,” said Sari. “It’s the option we have.”

Ras el Ma, Morocco: From source of life to deadly poison

Mimoun Nadori crouches to dip his hand into the river and taste the water next to groves where his family has long grown fruits and vegetables on their northern Morocco farms.

He grimaces. It’s salty. But it didn’t used to be this way.

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“Everything was green,” he remembers. “We drank from the river and washed with the river. We made a life with it.”

But less rainfall and more damming and pumping upstream has left less water flowing through Morocco’s Moulouya River and threatened the livelihoods of farmers like Nadori. Where the river once flowed from the mountains into the Mediterranean, it now sits stagnant, allowing seawater to creep inland and turning water from a source of life to a deadly poison.

Nadori started importing water for the on-site chicken coop he manages after his cows accustomed to drinking from the river died. He knew neither that the water was brackish nor that they were feeding from it until they wound up dead.

Overuse of the river has also put new pressures on the reserves of water that lie beneath the ground as Moroccan farmers like Nadori - as well as those on the other side of the nearby Algerian border - dig more wells to compensate for the loss of their former supply.

“We won’t lie and say the reason is only humans or drought, it’s both,” he said. “We don’t know how to use water and we waste a lot of water.”

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Corning, California: Water rationing and emotional upheaval

There was a time when the water in Fred and Robin Imfeld’s pool shimmered on hot summer days and their yards were lush with plants.

But two years ago, the well that supplied water to their home in rural Corning, California, went dry for the first time in some 40 years. Now the pool is empty, and their trees are shades of rust.

Across California, domestic wells have dried up in record numbers in recent years due to drought and overpumping, causing groundwater levels to drop. The couple wants to drill a new and deeper well, but at $25,000, it’s a hefty expense.

These days, they depend on state-funded water deliveries. Twice a month, they get a 9,463-litre tank (2,500 gallon) outside their garage filled with water to shower, wash dishes and do laundry with. They also receive 113 litres (30 gallons) of potable water every other week for cooking and drinking.

When they need a little extra, Fred hauls water just as he did for seven months when their well dried, before they got the tank. He loads his truck with containers, drives some three miles to a friend’s house, and fills them with water.

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“We’re just being emotionally drained with our own personal lives and trying to deal with (the water) and worrying about what’s coming up and where we go from here,” said Fred.

Makueni County, Kenya: Walking half an hour 5 times a day just to find water

Joyce Mule used to walk for about two hours to find water. In her hilly and rocky village in Makueni County in dry southeastern Kenya, water is very scarce. There’s little piped water and few reliable alternatives.

One way Mule used to get water was through scoop holes in sandy riverbeds. These work by people digging into the sand and water held in pore spaces percolating out of the adjacent sand into the hole. This method is still popular in southeastern Kenya.

But in 2012, she and her fellow villagers resolved to address that problem by adopting the rock catchment system, a method of harvesting rainwater from stone outcrops, which are giant naturally occurring rocks standing hundreds of feet above the ground. Mule fetches water here about five times a day and takes around half an hour to get it home.

The technology works in a simple way: Villagers build a concrete wall around the rock to trap rainwater. They put big stones to filter the water and a pipe to take the water down to storage tanks. The water collected from the rock catchment flows into the tanks through the pipe, and then to a water collection point nearby where residents fetch it from taps.

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She’s happy because it’s close, consistently available and the water is clean. As a result, her trees are producing more fruits and her cows are giving more milk.

“We used to think these rocks were worthless, but now we see their benefits,” she said.

Bawal, India: Digging deeper every year

Ramkrishan Malawat, 52, remembers a time when groundwater was just 21 metres (70 feet) below surface level and a fast-flowing river 10 kilometres (6 miles) away from his farm in Bawal, near New Delhi, provided abundant water.

But now the river has run dry and water is 76 metres (250 feet) below ground. “We are forced to dig deeper with every passing year,” he said. Malawat uses a borewell to get water for his crops: mustard, corn and various millets.

The deeper the water is dirtier it is too, he claims, as “the level of contamination by fluoride and other chemicals increases.”

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India is the world’s largest extractor of groundwater and pumps out more water than the United States and China combined, according to the UN.

The extraction for farming, construction and other needs combined with climatic changes like erratic rainfall and extreme heat means groundwater levels are dropping drastically across the country.

“There is so much construction around here and when it rains now, the water just flows away” rather than seeping into the ground and replenishing stocks, Malawat said. Bawal is better known for its auto industry than its agriculture. “I worry sometimes that in 10 to 15 years, there will be no good water available for farming in my town.”

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