Over the last decade, millions have gained access to clean water and hygienic toilets and close to half of the world’s developing countries have amended their constitutions to include water and sanitation as human rights. But there is still a long way to go. Globally, 785 million — that’s 1 in 10 people — still lack access to clean water close to home, and 2 billion — 1 in 4 people — don't have a proper toilet of their own.

International charity WaterAid commissioned 10 visual artists from across the Global South to interpret the far-reaching impact access to clean water and sanitation has on people’s lives and the role these vital basics play in the realisation of other human rights. This collection of artworks was released on 28 July 2020 to mark 10 years since water and sanitation were recognised by the United Nations General Assembly as vital human rights, which should be afforded to every person.

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(Above photo)

Tomorrow’s world | SERGE ATTUKWEI CLOTTEY

Clottey hails from Ghana, which is facing some of the most detrimental consequences of climate change and water shortage. His images portray found materials from the surrounding environment, for instance, rubber gallons for water. He turns these materials into sculptures on conservation, climate change, and poverty alleviation.

"Every day in Ghana – where not everyone has access to running water – the streets are filled with children carrying yellow buckets on their heads, on their way to a fountain. Trees lining the streets are cut down so that trucks carrying large loads can pass by," Clottey mentions.

With this image, in particular, Clottey wants to create art that represents the anguish and violence that go along with the problems our planet is currently facing. He says, "People do not realise how their own suffering is tied to the environment: to their long trip to fetch water, or their discomfort under the heat when the streets have no trees."

Clottey's work combines activism and art, and addressing society’s cultural, political, and economic inadequacies on climate change. According to him, the art implicates both the individual and the government, and it urges people into action and attempts to rectify the current state of ignorance.

"Most of the world seems to know about global warming and is at fault for not doing enough. Ghana, in contrast, does not seem to be aware in the first place," Clottey remarks, observing how the topics of global warming and climate change are not discussed in people’s homes, the school curricula, or by the media and society.

"The burden thus falls upon me to make my art accessible and actively seek out engagement," Clottey says. "My artwork is a call to people at all levels to look around them and reconsider the way they live their lives."

Clottey hopes his photograph demands social justice by exposing environmental problems in today’s society; inspires the human spirit by calling people to action, and builds the "foundations for an open society by imagining a community where we conserve, recycle, and respect".

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All on her | COLLIN SEKAJUGO

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Sekajugo's mixed media piece on canvas, titled 'All on her', is centered on the role of women and girls in the development of African society. Despite the significance of their contribution, "women and girls, for generations, have been held captive by patriarchy," says Sekajugo. It’s with this notion that the community-conscious multimedia artist of Ugandan-Rwandese parentage adopted a picture of a young woman carrying a load of empty jerrycans in search of clean water for her family. While this imagery may not be uncommon across the underdeveloped world, Sekajugo thinks the model’s portrait depicts the plight of underprivileged women and children while the jerrycan denotes consumerism.

"I have always found the jerrycan to be such a symbolic item in African homes. In almost every community it’s used for trading consumer commodities such as cooking oil, kerosine, shampoo and most importantly, for fetching and storing water. I have grown to believe that a home without a jerrycan is unlivable. Therefore this artwork speaks to the symbolism of a jerrycan versus its importance in accessing clean water and observing sanitation," Sekajugo says.

Sekajugo, who grew up amidst social tensions where he witnessed some people struggling to access basic needs such as clean water, healthcare and education, dedicates this artwork to all the women and children, especially young girls who on a daily basis walk miles in search for clean water to sustain their families’ wellbeing. "And hopefully, each and every person who sees this image will realise that I am not only trying to raise awareness for ongoing gender inequality in Africa but at the same time appealing for immediate change as well."

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É o fim do caminho | CRISTINA DE MIDDEL

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In her picture, Middel photographs a neighbour named Gaeteno carrying two bags full of water, of which one is dripping. Middel says she wanted to use the beautiful light of the afternoon and work with Gaetano. "We just walked to one of the many streams and sources of water there is around with a few ideas in mind and played with the different possibilities."

She explains further, "I wanted to reflect on the fact that the abundance of water does not necessarily mean the quality of water [is good]. I live in a small town in the state of Bahía (Brazil) and we are in the middle of the rainy season. There is water everywhere but it rains with such intensity that the water system collapses very often and there is no water at home. Here water is a utility but also an important part of the landscape and the culture. I wanted to play with the idea of encapsulating it and play with its presence in different forms."

According to Middel, this photograph conveys the idea of "the need for water in everyday life and what people need to do to have access to it in some parts of the world".

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Pour me Water, Pure Water | DAFÉ OBORO

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Oboro's 'Pour me Water, Pure Water', featuring Smart Song, a Lagos-based model and music artist, presents one idea – bathing as an essential everyday ritual. It is a tribute to local workers in Lagos, from the mechanics to the plumbers and the bricklayers who can usually be seen taking their baths, with their shorts on, behind parked buses. These people don’t necessarily have quick access to a running tap, but they always find enough water to bathe with, and not having water at all will ultimately deny them the right to wash after a long day’s work.

"My first thought was to find a way to connect how different people bathe – what distinguishes the act between one person and another and what makes them the same, for there to be a balance," Oboro says. This particular photograph was shot outdoors with the subject wearing shorts, as a reference to those who have no other recourse but to bathe with little or no privacy. And, at the same time, Oboro highlights the things that everyone relates to – water, soap and foam.

"I want there to be a connection between the image and those who see it. There are certain elements in this image that one can relate with, regardless of where they are from — be it the water, the soap, or the subject which could be any of us. I want this to show more than ever the importance of having access to clean water and the endless possibilities when this is achieved or made possible," points Oboro.

Water is life and it is evident that without the right to clean water, a ritual as simple and important as bathing would be impossible. But in many parts of the world, there are many complications in terms of access and availability of other resources which are closely linked with water. Oboro explains, "I am not so sure whether electricity access is considered a universal human right but based on my own thoughts and experience, I do know that without electricity, other rights — such as having access to clean water — are very much impossible. With that being said, I live in a country where constant and consistent electricity or any electricity at all is perceived as a privilege."

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Constant Ritual | GIYA MAKONDO-WILLS

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Makondo-Wills shows handwashing techniques recommended during the global pandemic and the use of water during cultural practices of cleansing.

Talking about how the idea for these set of pictures struck her, Makondo-Wills says, "The initial ideas came from the constant reminders to wash hands and the NHS' (United Kingdom National Health Service) step-by-step guide during the time of coronavirus. When looking at the processes I noticed that the steps to prevent the spread of the virus were dependent on three key things: clean running water from a tap (ideally with a modern faucet that could be turned off by using your elbow and not your hands), a soap dispenser with liquid soap, and disposable paper towels."

But these are not universally accessible, even within the UK. That is when Makondo-Wills began to think around the sanctity of water in respect to ritual and cleansing within ancestral and indigenous practices, whether it be the cleaning of a newborn child or cleansing to wash away spirits. "I thought about how access to clean water in relation to ancestral practice and cultural customs is often overlooked and I combined these ideas and decided to illustrate these through a piece performing this new constant ritual in the sea."

"The sea reminds us that everyone is connected and that water is sacred. During the coronavirus we have heard the phrase ‘the virus knows no borders’ and by using our largest connecting water source, I hope to point out that as a global community we are all responsible for all of our fellow human beings and ensuring that everyone has the same basic right of access to clean water and the chance to protect themselves from the current virus in the most basic way possible."

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Wata | HENRY J KAMARA

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Kamara photographs this Victorian water pump as a reminder toof a disparity where the right to clean water and decent toilets is a luxury afforded only to the fortunate.

Explaining his picture, Kamara says, "In the past, Bonthe was a thriving trade hub and economic centre. In the ’80s, palm products and seafood became major industries. During the two World Wars, the French and English navies used the town as a naval base. But like a sun-bleached photo taken of an exotic island town, where you can see things once were bright and new, now all that’s left is a vague image of what used to be. "

Kamara believes strongly that world leaders must step up and accept responsibility, now more than ever: "It was just 10 years ago that the right to clean water and toilets was declared by the UN as an inalienable human right. Therefore, they must do more to ensure that the infrastructure that enables sovereignty and access to water is available to everyone, not just some."

"The time to change is now," he asserts. "Take a moment to show gratitude for this seemingly basic right every time you wash your hands or take a shower ."

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A Lopsided Tale I & II | JOSEPH OBANUBI

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For Obanubi, his images speak of a number of things — duality, communal living, Yoruba sculptures, surrealism, gender among others. He has referenced Nigerian-Yoruba sitting sculptures with the poses in his work, and also attempted to highlight on the healing qualities of water.

"Water is considered a basic element of life and as an essential factor in the Yoruba religion," Obanubi says. "Yoruba believe water to be a symbol of force and strength. Water is regarded as a symbol and a tool, able to influence all misfortunes and matters dealing with well being and health. It is sacred and vital to life."

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Obanubi hails from Lagos and his artworks are also reflections of the water crisis the country faces every day. "The access to clean water and hygiene in Lagos still remains a big deal," he says. "Frequently, a huge percentage of the population is unable to get water and this results in alternatives [like] buying water from the water sellers. One can’t be so sure of how clean that water is." Approximately 50 litres of water per person per day is needed to ensure that most basic needs are met while keeping public health risks at a low level.

Obanubi says he hopes these images "make anyone stop for a while and begin some insightful conversations and pull the right triggers in the long run". "I believe an individual would react/interpret these works in a way that makes sense to him/her but I really don’t think the symbols/icons (toilet seat cover, the squats, kneeling, the headlights, the jerrycan, aquarium bowl, etc) which I employed in communicating the idea of the project would be missed," he concludes.

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Vivaz | MONICA ALCAZAR-DUARTE

"I think is important for us all to remember that although water is essential for life it is more than that. Water allows us to celebrate, to relax, to socialise, to be joyful. This is a quality that we in the western world easily take for granted," says Alcazar-Duarte.

When WaterAid commissioned the piece for this campaign Alcazar-Duarte immediately thought of rain and how it falls from the sky that we all share. "I remembered taking photographs of people playing under the rain in Mexico while working in an independent project there. The water looked like stars. My current work is involved with doing my own drawings on top of photographs, and I thought it would be wonderful to continue these ideas for this work. I decided I wanted the drawings to express the lightness, joy and life-giving properties of water. I decided to animate the drawings to create a little story out of the image."

"Water not only cleanses and sustains us, but it also calms us and gives us pleasure and relaxation. My work very much talks about the quality of life, related to water, and how access to clean water is essential for our soul as well as for our body," Alcazar-Duarte mentions. 'Vivaz', her video/picture installation, was taken in the Mexican seaside town of Zihuatanejo. People there, in general, have access to clean water but many have to rely on water trucks that come to a local central location.

With 'Vivaz', she hopes the viewers get an opportunity to reflect on the joys and affirming qualities of water. "I hope that the work encourages people to value the resource that many of us have at our fingertips and to think about the injustice of not having access to water at all."

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Untitled: After Lee Miller | POULOMI BASU

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Basu's image is a recreation of the photograph of Lee Miller bathing in Hitler's bathtub in his apartment in Munich. Miller discovered the apartment as she was attached to the American 45th division, covering the liberation of Europe for Vogue. However, filtered through her own experiences, individually and through artistic practice, Basu decided to make some subtle ‘updates’ to the image.

Firstly it is in colour and secondly, we have a glimpse of the water in the bathtub, which is blood-red — a symbol of menstruation. "I have kept the boots but added a bucket as a symbol of the great distances many women around the world must walk to fetch water, or to find the seclusion of a forest so that they can go to the toilet," Basu says. In the Lee Miller photo, the image of Hitler contextualises the location, but in Basu's version of the photograph, she has replaced the photo of Hitler with one of her images of 'Anjana, the 12-year-old child bride in Nepal' from the series Blood Speaks. "I wanted to reframe this image in the shadow of all of those who live without adequate sanitation, and systems of blood politics and control, which are often connected."

Basu says she drew inspiration for this picture from the idea of clean water and toilets being an inalienable right, and in response to the current climate and the enforced domesticity of large swathes of the global population. She adds, "My response is a reflection on how many of us, particularly when living in the west, we take the bathroom and easy access to water for granted... whilst this is a right denied for many women and girls around the world, particularly those in the Global South."

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Vegetable Garden, T Fish; Nafoore Garden, T Fleur Bleu | SAÏDOU DICKO

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The idea of highlighting the issue of water scarcity through his art came to Dicko through his personal experiences in his native village of Deou in northern Burkina Faso:

"When I was a child there was no water problem. I left my village when I was nine to go to Ouagadougou. I used to go to the village regularly to visit my family. This is where I saw the water scarcity problem start to set in. During the months of the dry season, the population spent its time queuing in front of manual pumps, because the wells were empty. Often we would wait three days for our turn to finally come. We would go to unload the water at home and come back to line up for 2-3 days and repeat the same for 3-4 months until the rainy season returned."

"The perpetual waiting around the pump, under a sun of 50 degrees, days and nights would be punctuated by the tears of hungry and thirsty children. The animals would also be thirsty and roamed squealing around the pump. Unfortunately more than half of our herds would die of thirst under our helpless gaze."

Despite all this, Dicko says the population keeps their joy. The economic and social life in the village has settled around the pump, with street vendors, and there is a convivial and sharing atmosphere: "There is a lot of waiting for water for sure, but no arguments; there is friendliness all around."

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Since 2019, Dicko has been working with an association named 'Nafoore Cellal' based in the Yagma pastoral zone in a peripheral district of Ouagadougou; among other things, they have repaired several abandoned manual boreholes.

"Currently, we have two water towers with a capacity of 3m3 and 6m3 which operate with solar panels and two hand pumps. We manage the repairs and maintenance of all our boreholes as well as the salaries of the people who supervise them," he says. "We are very happy because now the pastoral zone has a lot of water. We were then able to create an organic vegetable garden for the women's group. Twenty-five women and seven men work on-site and share their harvest."

Since 22 February 2020 they have been able to operate a health centre through their own funds, with support from extended families and friends. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, they were able to help 25 internally displaced families with the distribution of food.

Through his pictures, Dicko hopes that people will be motivated to act individually or collectively with associations and/or NGOs to help millions who suffer due to lack of water.

— All images courtesy Water Aid. All rights reserved.