09/17/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Swimming for Water

As Amref Health Africa's new Executive Director, I've decided to take the plunge into the Hudson for the Statue of Liberty Swim, a 1.2 km swim around Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, this Thursday, September 18, to help Kenyan women and children access clean water.

In the U.S., one person alone uses 152 gallons of water per day! An entire family in Africa uses five -- when they can find it.

As I'm swimming around Lady Liberty, I'll be thinking about Phyllis Kamene, a 40-year-old mother of five, who hails from Kitui County, located in the lower eastern region of Kenya. The area is among the poorest in Kenya with over 56 percent of the population living in absolute poverty. The climate of the district is arid and semi-arid, with erratic rainfall. Due to limited rainfall, surface water sources are scarce, leaving mainly seasonal rivers that dry up when there is no rain.

Phyllis is the coordinator of the Orphanage Women's Self Help Group, which helps needy children in the district. As part of Amref Health Africa's newest five-year Water, Sanitation and Personal Hygiene (WASH) program begun in 2011, we've trained several members of her group as 'well artisans,' women who help construct wells for the community. Other group members were trained to manage the wells. Phyllis' efforts, along with her fellow "well artisans," have greatly contributed to improved health and poverty reduction for the entire community.

Before Phyllis and her team began building wells though, it was mainly up to women and children to fetch water, taking precious time away from a women's ability to earn a living to support her family. Not only that, but girls often missed half or full days of school to find water, and searching in remote areas put both women and children in precarious situations.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than two-thirds of the population must leave their home to fetch water for drinking and domestic use. Over 40 billion hours are spent per year fetching and carrying water, with the average distance to a water source being roughly five miles in rural areas. Often, the average wait time at the source is over an hour. On the trip home, women carry up to 44 pounds of water, even when pregnant. And despite all this effort put towards fetching water, it is often untreated and unsafe for use.

Women and young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lack of clean water and sanitation. Water is key in addressing women's health needs, especially in childbirth where two out of five maternal deaths occur within 24 hours of birth of causes related to unsanitary conditions, such as unclean hands, tools, delivery surfaces, towels etc. The majority of diarrheal deaths in under five children worldwide are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

To help change this situation, Amref Health Africa, along with schools, local communities, and the Kenyan health authorities, began implementing a Water, Sanitation and Personal Hygiene (WASH) project in Kitui in 2011. This five-year program aims to sustainably increase access to safe water, sanitation and promote appropriate hygiene practices especially among women and children and the community. Children are excellent agents of change in promoting positive health practices, like hand washing in schools, and bringing the message home to their parents to educate the entire family.

Key activities implemented in the Kitui project include the development of water sources such as shallow and giant wells, pipeline extensions, rainwater tanks, and boreholes, creating better sanitation facilities in the form of proper latrines and hand washing facilities in schools and households, and training the local residents, mostly women, to maintain the new facilities. Phyllis and the other 'women water artisans' are also responsible for educating the community about the importance of clean water and teaching children to properly wash their hands with soap.

In the three years since the program began, there has already been tremendous progress made in improving the overall health of the Kitui residents. Access to safe water has improved drastically, walking distance to water sources has been reduced, there are more toilets, with private areas for girls and boys at schools, and the majority of communities now regularly wash their hands with soap.

And me? Well, I'll be doing my best Michael Phelps imitation early Thursday morning, to ensure the community in Kitui and other similar areas in Kenya, have access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities.

While New York is spending millions to clean up the Hudson River, communities in Africa don't have access to those kinds of resources.


Amref Health Africa is an African-led health development organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. Working in more than 35 countries across Africa, Amref Health Africa focuses on the most critical health challenges facing the continent, including maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, clean water and sanitation and clinical and surgical outreach. In 2013 alone, Amref Health Africa trained more than 225,000 health workers.