By Maggie Phelps
A senior from Western Kentucky University spent three weeks telling stories about her first-hand experience with an organization that provides clean water resources to communities in rural Africa.
Molly St. Clair, a Journalism Major, interned at Water to Thrive, an organization based out of Austin, Texas, that focuses on providing clean and accessible water to communities in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. She spent two weeks in Ethiopia and one week in Uganda during summer 2023.
“Water to Thrive transforms lives in rural Africa by working with partners and beneficiaries to bring the blessing of clean, safe water, connecting communities in need with supporters who have the heart and spirit to make a difference,” stated Water to Thrive’s mission statement.
“When they go to build these wells, the people in the communities are taught how to build them and do a lot of the labor alongside the workers that are in the organization,” St. Clair said. “When you learn how to build something and all the work that goes into it, you want to protect it and take care of it longer,so that the well lasts longer. They all work together,and they’re guided by professionals, so it’s a safe process.”
Water to Thrive began in 2008 and paid for construction of 12 wells in Ethiopia. It expanded to Uganda and Tanzania. It now has paid for 1,400 water projects and provided clean water to more than 700,000 people, Water to Thrive reported.
Every 90 seconds a child dies from a waterborne illness, Water to Thrive reported. Building clean water systems in these communities decreases the amount of disease transferred by water, the distances individuals go to retrieve water, and it promotes higher education around the benefits of clean and accessible water. Water to Thrive builds four types of wells: hand-dug wells, spring protection development, shallow borehole wells and deep borehole wells. Each type provides clean water, and the type of well is chosen through their in-country partner organization. An Ethiopia project manager decides the best type of well for each community’s needs.
Molly St. Clair, a Western Kentucky University senior Journalism Major, visits a new spring protection well with villagers in Ethiopia. (Water to Thrive photo)
A hand-dug well is built when a community has a water supply close to the surface. The well is dug 8 meters to 15 meters —26 feet to 49 feet —and a filtration system is installed. The well is capped and a hand pump is used to draw the water.
A spring protection well is built whenever the community has a natural supply of relatively clean water nearby.The eye of the spring is carefully capped and covered with a large cement protection box. The box protects the water from surface contamination,and it contains a natural filtration system of river gravel and sand. During the day, the clean water that has been collected is piped to distribution points where community members can collect it.When the groundwater is too deep for a hand-dug well, a shallow to deep borehole well is used. Shallow borehole wells go 20 meters-50 meters below the surface —approximately 65 feet to 164 feet.
Deep borehole wells range from 50 meters to 250 meters deep, approximately 164 feet to 820 feet. A pump is used withboth to retrieve the water. St. Clair used her reporting skills to effectively relay the experience of those living without clean water.
“While I was there, my job was to document the impact of clean water via writing, video, and photography,” St. Clair said. “You start to find a balance if you’re doing all three at once.” St. Clair said there would be times she would put the camera down and focus on interviewing. “I find that even if I’m not taking photos and I happen to not be recording, if I’m paying attention and giving that person my time, I’ll remember what they said or I’ll remember a significant part about what we talked about,” St. Clair said. “I can take it back and write about it anyway. I just may not have direct quotes.”
St. Clair learned the significance of clean water through her reporting, specifically the impact on women and children,who walk up to six hours every day to collect water. Safety concerns arise when women and children walk long distances to get water, St. Clair said. Women might be abducted and raped on their way and are then viewed by villagers as unclean. Often they are forced to marry their abductors, St. Clair said.
“Implementing clean water sources into the communities is a big thing for safety and it can also help educate communities on why that’s not OK,and it helps (create) a culture shift,” St. Clair said. “Culture change is slow, but it can happen.”Young girls are often pulled out of school due to the lengths they go to retrieve water. They fall behind in school and miss classes due to walking so far. They also miss school when their menstruation cycle starts because of the lack of education about female hygiene, St. Clair said.
Water to Thrive worked with Pact, an international nonprofit that operates in nearly 40 countries. They built clean water systems and washrooms in schools,and provided education about female hygiene.“
Pact also implements a program where they teach boys and girls how to make reusable pads and then educate them on periods, and tell them that it’s a very natural thing,” St. Clair said. “They’re also implementing washrooms for girls, so when they’re at school, they don’t have to leave to go change.”
Clean water does not just affect young girls.
St. Clair said that one time she met a woman who gave birth on her way back from retrieving water. Women do not have the capability to shower after labor and that can lead to infections and lack of confidence. St. Clair gained a new perspective during her time in Africa, she said.
“It was weird coming back and just thinking that people have no idea what some people live with and how blessed I am, which sounds kind of stereotypical, but it’s the truth,” St. Clair said. “I think we have a lot to be grateful for.”