Children gather around a hole in the ground filled with water.
In Zambia, girls are often given the chore of collecting water, often from holes in the ground.

Water Crisis in Zambia

More than 844 million people live without safe, accessible drinking water in the world today, and in Zambia, the problem has created extreme hardships, particularly for women and girls, as they are typically tasked with collecting water from distant, unclean sources and then must carry the extremely heavy containers home. For women and girls around the world, nearly 200 million hours per day are spent carrying water for their families. For Zambians, a lack of access to clean water and widespread waterborne illnesses have led to a ripple effect across the entire country, impacting everything from electricity to education.

Key Takeaways:

  • • Zambia is experiencing severe droughts and water shortages coupled with poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
  • • Poor WASH has led to the widespread prevalence of waterborne illnesses across Zambia, the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5.
  • • The water crisis has impacted other issues, including:
    • ✓ Deforestation
    • ✓ Food insecurity
    • ✓ Electricity shortages
    • ✓ Girls’ education and school dropout rates
A woman holds a plastic bucket with a dirty creek in the background.
Zambian women use plastic buckets like these to collect water, often from contaminated sources.

The Zambian Water Crisis

Since 1960, the average rainfall in Zambia has fallen by 2.3  per decade, leading to widespread droughts and water shortages. The decrease in available water sources coupled with an overworked and outdated water sanitation infrastructure has led to poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Just 33 percent of Zambia’s 18.4 million people have access to basic sanitation services, and less than 24 percent have access to basic hygiene services like handwashing facilities with soap and water.

Inadequate WASH is the main cause of the spread of cholera and other waterborne illnesses, the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5. A 2020 study found that 75 percent of household-stored water was contaminated with E. coli, leading to frequent diarrhea and subsequent poor nutritional absorption. Poor nutritional absorption has caused Zambia’s high rate of child stunting (35) and prevalent failure to thrive. Additionally, because women and girls are overwhelmingly responsible for fetching water for their families, they are also often the most affected by waterborne illnesses and their consequences.

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Women walking with water buckets and children on their backs in the Zambian countryside.
Zambian women often walk miles with heavy buckets to collect enough water for the day.

Other Impacts

In addition to the impact on health, the water crisis has had a ripple effect on just about every other aspect of life for the Zambian people. Rapid deforestation has been led in part by locals (often former farmers) selling baskets of charcoal sourced from hardwood forests and protected reserves. Prolonged and severe droughts have disrupted farmers’ ability to raise crops and livestock, and they have had to turn to charcoal production to feed their families. Additionally, the prolonged drought has led to food insecurity for over 1 million Zambians. This food insecurity coupled with the nutritional deficits caused by chronic diarrhea has had a profound impact on the Zambian population. 

Electricity

Zambia also relies on water for about half of its electricity. The Kariba Dam, which straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, has run at about 25 capacity since 2020, leading to massive power outages in both countries. This lack of electricity has destabilized Zambia’s already weak water sanitation infrastructure, which contributes to the continued spread of waterborne illnesses.

Getting Water

For women and girls, the search for water — which is often contaminated — can take hours of their day. Women have reported getting in line as early as 1 a.m. to access the limited water supply from local boreholes. They then fill their large plastic buckets to the brim, before beginning their long trek back home with a container often weighing upwards of 45 pounds. Those who aren’t able to get water from the boreholes must dig holes in the mud and wait for the muddy water to rise to the top, or take their chances the next day that they will be able to gather water for their family from a different source. Even for those who were able to secure water, it often contains bacteria that can make their families sick, which is a sad reward for a hard day’s work. 

Impact on Education

School dropout rates, especially for girls, are unfortunately high in Zambia, as children are often responsible for collecting water for their families. Even if these families do find water, it is often contaminated with waterborne illnesses and causes chronic diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea and fatigue from poor nutrition can contribute to school absenteeism, which influences school dropout rates.

A women with a baby on her back collects water from a hole in the ground.
Your support can provide clean water to families relying on contaminated sources for survival.

What Can Be Done?

A 2021 Stanford study found that installing piped water can save families nearly 200 hours of water-fetching per year. Instead of dedicating a large portion of their day to getting water for their families, women and girls (who are overwhelmingly responsible for this task) can now participate in other activities such as employment, church, education and leisure, and, for the girls, simply being a kid. 

A lack of access to clean drinking water can lock an entire community in a poverty cycle for generations. Searching, walking to and from, gathering, and even waiting in line can consume hours of the community’s time. Each hour spent fetching water means that hour cannot be used toward economic activities or furthering education. By just adding clean water, a community can break the cycle and begin to grow together toward a more prosperous future. 

When people gain access to clean water, it acts as a stepping stone toward total community development. People can practice good hygiene and sanitation, children can stay in school longer, and families can devote more time to economic activities and diversify their incomes. Instead of competing over a water source, community members can come together and build each other up.  

Cross Catholic Outreach’s Water for the Poor program provides dependable water sources for impoverished rural communities suffering from thirst, waterborne illness and a lack of modern infrastructure. You can support this important mission by donating today.

A woman uses a hand-pump well to collect clean water with members of her community watching.
Your support will help Cross Catholic Outreach’s ministry partners in Zambia build wells like this one. These wells transform lives and communities!

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Proceeds from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2023, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.