12/19/2012 03:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Giving Birth on the Side of the Road With Two Cans of Dirty Water

One of the joys of my work is the direct connection to inspiring individuals and amazing stories of life around the world. My colleague Emily, who just returned from Ethiopia, shared a story that is really sticking with me: that of some courageous mothers who have faced being pregnant and giving birth without access to safe water.

One of these moms was Tewabech Kutambo, who recently gave birth to her daughter alone on the side of the road.

Thirty-year-old Tewabech is from the village of Lahyte in Konso, about 370 miles south of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. The village has no access to clean and safe water and Tewabech's community is forced to dig for dirty, contaminated water from the Orbole riverbed, a two hour walk away.

Even when heavily pregnant, Tewabech had to make the arduous and long journey to the riverbed in order to collect water for her family. She had no other choice.

"It takes a few hours to collect water. We go before the sun rises and come back when it is high in the sky. I cannot stop going to the river even if I am pregnant."

Tewabech told Emily that the walk became increasingly difficult as her due date approached. One day, carrying two heavy cans of water back home, she felt pain. She knew her baby was coming.

She gave birth to her daughter Kutaynesh Kuna on the side of the road, alone and scared with only the filthy water she was carrying to wash herself and her baby. She then walked home cradling her newborn daughter.

Tewabech's story isn't uncommon. Emily met other new moms who have also given birth alone by roadsides or on riverbanks while searching for water. Whatever stage of pregnancy women are at, water collection is a task that is commonly prioritized over everything else, even the health of the mothers and babies. In the developing world only 58 percent of births are attended by a skilled assistant, such as a midwife, nurse or doctor, according to UNFPA; in Ethiopia, a shocking 90 percent of births take place without trained assistants.

For us, this is almost unimaginable, but pregnant women in developing countries still have to collect water. This, paired with a lack of sanitation facilities, means that basic hygiene practices cannot be carried out and giving birth becomes dangerous for both the mother and child.

A study examining the factors related to maternal deaths in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania found that women without tap water had a 2.7 fold increased risk of dying in childbirth, while those lacking toilets had a 8.3 fold increased risk of dying during child birth.

Clara Muchimba, a midwife at Chikuni Mission Hospital in Zambia, told WaterAid: "Often the women don't have clean water, we find that there are a lot of difficulties.... They draw the water from shallow wells. And that usually causes a lot of infections. It is very dangerous for the woman and the child when there is poor hygiene. A lot of infections can occur."

Madame Madié Diarra is a midwife from Yélékébougou, a rural community in the south-west of Mali. WaterAid has been working in this community since 2007, and she told us:. "When delivering babies without water, nothing is possible. There is no hygiene. Water is everything."

Tewabech and her daughter Kutaynesh were lucky to survive the birth. But, Kutaynesh's future is far from certain. Like so many children in her community, she may not survive her first few years. When she stops nursing, the dirty water she'll have to drink will put her at serious risk of water-related diseases.

Young children are most vulnerable to the diseases that result from a lack of safe water and poor sanitation. Across the world, 2,000 children die every day from water-related illnesses. When time spent collecting water is added to the other daily tasks that fall to women and girls, there is little time for anything else. No time to earn a living. No time for girls to go to school.

The power of clean water and sanitation for a mother and child is immense. Near Tewabech's village is another called Aba Roba, which now thanks to WaterAid's support, has all the clean water it needs. As a result, women no longer have to walk miles to collect water. They can give birth at home, and care for their new babies with the knowledge that safe water is available nearby.

Orke Otta is a mother from Aba Roba who had to walk for four hours to collect water throughout her first six pregnancies. Like Tewabech, Orke once ended up giving birth alone while collecting water. Fortunately the baby survived, but it was a frightening and risky situation.

The birth of her seventh child, four month-old Marcus, took place after WaterAid helped the community build a clean water source. With clean drinking water and without having to spend long hours in search of water Orke stayed healthy during this pregnancy and had a safe and clean birth.

"This baby was born at home and didn't have any problems. I was clean, I had clean clothes, and my baby was immediately washed with clean water."

With safe water close to home, Orke can stay at home, regain her strength and care for her new son. When she is stronger, she will return to the fields and grow food rather than walking in search in water.

Ensuring all pregnant women have a midwife or someone else with these skills is a critical factor in ensuring safe motherhood and infancy. Yet clean, accessible water and sanitation are essential parts of the package, helping women to minimize the chances of illness or even death of the baby or themselves. And what's more, it ensures that moms and their children have a much more promising future. As Orke told Emily: "We can't live without water. Water is life."