THE BLOG
06/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In East Africa, Selling Drinking Water Straight From the Pond

LUANDA KOTIENO, Kenya--The gray donkey stood passively, shifting a little now and then as a man in a deeply faded shirt strapped yellow plastic barrels of water on its back.

The man was a water merchant. He was working a few miles from this little ramshackle town in western Kenya at the edge of a pond streaked with bright green scum. He had just filled the barrels with water from the pond and was about to head off in search of customers.

It is easy to find customers around here on the shore of Lake Victoria and elsewhere in much of Kenya, a struggling country in East Africa where unemployment and crime are high and disease and malnourishment come with the territory. The country has a tired and worn look.

Many people here and in other parts of the developing world do not have drinking water within easy reach. The United Nations estimates that about a billion people are living like that. Some experts say the number is much higher. To get their water, many people spend hours walking to streams and lakes and ponds. When they have the money, they buy water. What they get is often loaded with bacteria and parasites. Sickness is routine. Death is not rare. Children suffer most.

The water merchants are small businessmen and health is not their business. They sell convenience. They haul water here from the ponds and from murky Lake Victoria for people who want to spend their time cultivating small garden-size farms or at school or doing things around the house or just hanging out. Some people pour disinfectant into the water they get from the water merchants. Others just drink it as delivered.

The water merchants, usually referred to here as water vendors, charge about six cents for about five gallons or 20 liters of water. But even that is too much for many people. Bottled water at up to $1 for a single liter - more than 15 times what the water merchants charge for 20 times more water - is far beyond the reach of most.

Bouncing along on the main road from Kisumu, the largest Kenyan city on Lake Victoria, in a beat up bus with its shock absorbers gone stiff, I saw people solving their own water problems: walking and lugging, each one a snap-shot of water in the developing world.

A barefoot boy, probably no more than 10 years old and wearing just shorts, steadied a used plastic liter-size bottle of muddy gray water on his head with one hand; a shoeless man herding goats, carried his water in a large pail; a woman stepped along with a huge plastic jerry can on her head. She had a rhythm to her pace and, under all that weight, she was really moving.

The road was wide open, not many cars or trucks or motorcycles or even bicycles. Lots of people were walking. The poverty was vivid. On bare, rough patches of dirt, men and women trying to scrap up a few Kenyan shillings offered piles of old shoes and worn out clothes for sale. One farmer with a tiny piece of land told me his wife had one pair of shoes that she bought used and wore only to go some place special, like church.

Ahuga Graham is a banker in Mbita, a town on Lake Victoria about 45 minutes across the Gulf of Winam from Luanda Kotieno. He specializes in micro-finance, providing tiny loans of as little as $6.50 to very poor people. The water merchants, Mr. Graham said, don't need his services. They get their product almost free, for just their labor: "They don't require much capital."

A water merchant can make more than $2.50 a day, Mr. Graham said, in a part of the world where many people manage to get along on half that. "They are poor people," he said, "but this can give them a living."

At the ferry landing in Luanda Kotieno, a town of about 6,500 people, Walter Omondi, 20, just out of high school and working as a helper on a little, skinny water jitney with a small outboard motor, said he had tried drinking water straight from the lake. "It is dangerous to my stomach," he said. "I feel it in my stomach"

But he said some people who regularly drink untreated lake water - often provided by water merchants - say that "it builds character."