The Daily Weight Of Water Weighs On The Poorest in Sierra Leone

Sep 15, 2021
Originally published on September 15, 2021 3:20 pm

Almost every afternoon in the Dworzak neighborhood of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Yebu Bare hikes up a steep hillside to fill a 5-gallon bucket with water that spills from a crack in a giant cement cistern. The spindly 12-year-old carefully puts the bucket on her head, then treks down the winding dirt path home.

Her mother, Isate Bare, says their family needs five buckets of this water a day for bathing, washing dishes and cleaning. Isate, Yebu and her siblings take turns hauling it.

But the water they collect from the cistern is too dirty to drink. And it's not a reliable source of water. "During the dry season, it gets less," says Isate, and sometimes the children come home with empty buckets. The family buys its daily drinking water, about 3 gallons for 40 cents, from a nearby shop.

For families living in crowded informal settlements like Dworzak in the Sierra Leonean capital, getting enough clean water is an everyday challenge. But local leaders are trying to find ways to provide water in the community of simple shelters and tin shacks that rise up the rolling landscape.

Girls carry buckets of water up a hillside in Dworzak.
Jason Beaubien/NPR

"Water is a serious problem for us," says Yirah Oryanks Conteh, a Dworzak resident who runs the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor, a nonprofit group. And he says access to water is an issue "not only for Dworzak but for all the informal settlements in Freetown."

The problem isn't just in poor urban neighborhoods. Water is a concern across Sierra Leone. According to UNICEF, less than 1% of the country's 8 million residents have piped water inside their homes. Most families get their water each day from communal taps, neighborhood wells or local springs and streams.

Clean water didn't used to be an issue in Dworzak. In the 1980s and '90s, people started building small houses on the lush terrain. Water bubbled up from multiple springs, and it gushed down streams that cut through ravines. Then during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war in the 1990s, Dworzak grew rapidly. More and more people moved to the capital to get away from fighting in the countryside.

And while new residents arrived quickly, basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, sewers and piped water didn't. Streams got polluted with sewage and trash. Springs that had been sufficient for a few families couldn't keep up with the demands of the growing population.

Now roughly 45,000 people are crammed into Dworzak, says Conteh — "and the community is expanding every day."

Some parts of Dworzak, Conteh says, have sufficient water supplies year-round from private wells, larger streams and a municipal dam — but not all the water is drinkable or accessible to the public. Conteh estimates, however, that toward the end of the dry season — which lasts from February to April — 75% of the settlement struggles to get enough water every day.

The mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, has made improving access to clean water a significant part of her agenda for the city. In June, she inaugurated the country's first sewage treatment plant.

And she's backing the Freetown-Blue Peace initiative to construct 40 water kiosks, which will sell clean water for a small fee, in neighborhoods like Dworzak. The project, which is still in its planning stages, aims to provide jobs while also expanding access to water.

John Alpha manages a set of water taps from a spring high up on one of the hillsides in Dworzak.

"These two rocks, you see, this is where the water was coming from," Alpha says, pointing up the hill to where the water now bubbles up over a large rounded rock.

A woman gathers water from her neighbor's private well in Dworzak.
Jason Beaubien/NPR

Two years ago, some members of the community, with the help of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, built a covered cement tank to hold the spring water. The tank allows people to fill their buckets from taps lining a tiled wall rather than scooping it from a stream. Now for about 5 cents, residents can fill two jerry cans, about 5 gallons, from the taps on the wall. The spring is called 7UP after the soft drink.

"In my opinion, it is the best water" in the settlement, Alpha says proudly, noting its "coolness." He says it has been tested and is perfectly fine to drink. Even in the dry season, when a lot of the other streams in the neighborhood slow to a trickle, 7UP has plenty of water.

Still, not everyone comes to his taps. Some families in the settlement live too far away. Some can't pay for it. And some prefer to buy the water sold in plastic bags at the market because they think it's cleaner.

The people who originally took up residence in Dworzak, like many Sierra Leoneans, were obsessed with soccer. There's a dirt field in the heart of the settlement. And the neighborhood is divided into smaller wards, each named after teams that competed in the 1998 World Cup.

"Here is Holland," Alpha says of the area around his well. He points across the stream. "Over there is America." Up the hill from him is Nigeria. Across the ravine sit Cameroon and Argentina.

Alpha jokes that the best water is Dutch.

But then he grows serious. He points out that right next to his tiled taps, children who can't afford his meager prices scoop water from an open ditch.

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