14 Feb 2019 Story Climate change

Drink salty water or go thirsty – Climate change hits Tanzanian school children

Photo by Pixabay

The students at Kingani school in the Tanzanian town of Bagamoyo used to have two choices for drinking water at school: get sick or remain thirsty.

Rising sea levels, increased drought and reduced or erratic rainfall made the drinking wells so salty it would cause headaches, stomach aches and ulcers. To make matters worse, the water that students would spend time fetching from watering holes was so dirty that it spread disease.

Ismat Hassan, who came from Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam to study and board at Kingani, got stomach ulcers from drinking the well water, typhoid from the water collected from watering holes, and pain and exhaustion when she chose to drink neither.

“We were sometimes not drinking water from morning until evening,” she said.

“Sometimes I’d have pain in my head and my body would lose energy,” she added.

Students at Bagamoyo secondary school now have more time to study and less days off sick, thanks to a UN Environment-supported rainwater harvesting system that provides fresh water to an area where climate change is turning the ground water increasingly salty. Photo by UN Environment / Hannah McNeish

The school administration tried to address the problem by having new wells dug, but they quickly turned saline from seawater intrusion. It then started paying for water to be trucked in, but this quickly became unaffordable, as did the students’ spending on bottled water from nearby shops.

“Students were just asking all the time for fresh water for drinking,” said deputy head Sylolian Stephen.

“Most of the students were having stomach aches,” said Stephen. Kingani’s 650 pupils would also suffer from dizziness, fatigue and constipation due to dehydration.

In addition to the absenteeism, students were spending time to look for and fetch water from holes instead of studying, even though it kept making them sick. During the dry season, the well water sometimes became so salty that it could not even be used for laundry, as it would bleach clothes.

All that has changed after UN Environment and partners supported a project to construct a rainwater harvesting system, involving rooftop guttering and a series of large tanks for storing water that students can use for drinking, washing and cooking.

Engineer Dickson Watson is supervising the project at Kingani. The concrete and plastic tanks they set up there can contain an estimated 147,000 litres of water.

Before a UN Environment-supported rainwater harvesting project was set up at Kingani secondary school, the drinking water used to be so salty that students would complain of headaches, stomach aches and ulcers. Photo by UN Environment / Hannah McNeish

“These tanks will help them store water on rainy days so that they can use that water when the rain goes away,” he said.

Climate change in this coastal area has affected the supply of fresh water.

“Here there is a lot of water scarcity—the problem of water is huge,” said Watson.

Nowadays, the playground is dotted with big water tanks that students drink freely from and without the fear of health repercussions.

“Now we drink soft water and we don’t lose our time fetching water far from here,” said 17-year-old Zaituni Ramadan.

“I use that water tank there and it becomes easier to do my studying,” said Ramadan, who wants to be an accountant.

The new system is a sustainable solution that has eased concerns and expenditures at all levels.

“With this project we are going to solve the water problem and I think there will be enough,” said Lucy Michael, a water technician in Bagamoyo district council.

“We don’t need to take water from another place to bring here and we don’t need to be digging boreholes again,” she said.

Engineers attach pipes to collect rainwater to large concrete and plastic storage tanks from the roof of Kingani secondary school to provide students with fresh water for drinking, cooking and washing. Photo by UN Environment / Hannah McNeish

Stephen has noticed a huge improvement in student attendance, motivation and well-being.

“Since we got this, I haven’t had any students complaining of stomach aches and asking for fresh water,” he said, adding that at Kingani everyone was now free to “enjoy life”.

Sixteen-year-old Esther Jeremiah, who was diagnosed with typhoid twice last year from drinking contaminated water, echoes this sentiment.

“Now we are not getting those troubles of searching water from far and diseases are decreasing. That’s why we are happy and have more energy to study,” she said.

Hassan, who wants to become an engineer, marvels at a system she would like to replicate in future as it has given her a new lease of life and provided a lifeline to so many parched or sick students.

“This water is very sweet and when we drink it, our health gets better because that water is pure,” she said, filling her buckets at one of the new tanks. “I want to say thank you for this project because it is really helping us.”

For more information on UN Environment’s work in climate change adaptation, contact Jessica Troni.