Growing up in northern Ghana, a particularly arid region of a parched land, Braimah Apambire saw how a lack of access to water can sap a community's vitality – and how something as simple as a catchment or pump can transform lives. Apambire, director of the Center for International Water and Sustainability at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., USA, will be a featured speaker at the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group (WASRAG) World Water Summit on 30 May in Sydney, Australia.
THE ROTARIAN: How did you get involved in water issues?
APAMBIRE: In my village, Zuarungu, we do not have a lot of rainfall. In the dry season, three or four months of the year, we had to walk several miles to get water. My sisters, mother, and aunts would fetch the water; the boys were responsible for driving the cattle about 4 miles to and from a reservoir in the morning and evening. That affected our schooling. When I was about 12, the Canadian International Development Agency drilled about 2,600 wells in the region. I could see the change in peoples' lives. My mother and aunts, for example, had time to go to the village market to sell food. I got my bachelor's degree in geology and worked for a hydrologist installing water systems, and then I went to Canada for my master's degree. [Apambire also holds a PhD in hydrology from the University of Nevada, Reno.]
TR: How acute is the lack of access to safe water?
APAMBIRE: An estimated 740 million people globally do not have access to what we call improved water sources. About two billion people do not have access to safe drinking water that has been tested for chemicals and microbes. An estimated 88 percent of childhood illnesses are related to contaminated water and poor sanitation, and about 5,000 children die every day from that and poor hygiene practices.
TR: What advances are helping to improve access to water?
APAMBIRE: We're seeing more cell phone- and Internet-based technology to monitor water systems. Rainwater harvesting also has received a lot of attention. But even with the technology, you need to have the sanitation framework. If the village gets access to water, no matter how safe, you may still end up with behaviors that contaminate the water source. The community needs to know the link between contamination and disease.
TR: How crucial are partnerships, such as the ones fostered by WASRAG?
APAMBIRE: In developed countries, water is still taken for granted. In the United States, we each use about 100 gallons a day – showering, drinking, and watering lawns. You turn on the tap and you're not even aware you're wasting it. In Africa, the average is about 5 gallons of water a day, and many people don't even have that, or if they do, it's often contaminated.
I've seen Rotary building capacity and strategies around water. WASRAG has good projects that work with local people, using appropriate technologies and building sustainability. Because Rotarians are influential, they are bringing that attention. They also focus on where the need is, among the poorest of the poor.
This story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Rotarian.