Clean water in Africa is one of the most pressing issues halting the continent’s development. More children die from dirty water under the age of five than Malaria, HIV or measles combined. Charlotte Coulson spoke to Fiona Jeffrey, founder of the charity Just A Drop, who’s hoping to change that
Tell me about yourself, and how you became interested in water aid?
I was born in Scotland and while I studied languages at Edinburgh University I am from a medical family, which has I think meant I developed a strong social conscience from an early age. I went on to work in the travel industry but it was this social conscience that influenced my belief that both business and the travel industry should aim to give back to communities around the world. However, it was when I became a mum to Cameron and Lauren that I acted on my instincts and looked for a cause that was both environmentally friendly, global in its reach and which impacted children and their families. I learnt more about the issues surrounding water across the world as well as in Africa and that, at that time, just £1 could provide clean water to a child for nearly 10 years. With that, Just a Drop was born!
How critical is the issue of water aid in Africa?
At Just A Drop we have a saying: “Without water, life’s an endless struggle, but with it everything becomes more possible.” In short it is the essence of life. Women and children spend up to 125 million hours collecting water every day. That’s time they’re not in school getting an education or generating an income to support their families and while they are collecting water they are at risk of attack, rape and abduction. Dirty water also leaves them sick, which is why more children die from dirty water under the age of 5 than Malaria, HIV or measles combined. With access to water women can grow crops to feed their families, trade and get out of the poverty trap. Clean water not only saves lives, it transforms lives.
What do you see as being the main issues in preventing access to clean water in Africa?
The key issue is climate, and the ongoing impact of climate change is only going to make the situation much worse. While some places in Africa have water, in very rural poor communities it’s about creating access to it, digging down into the aquifer to draw on it and ensuring it’s safe to drink. In other, more arid destinations it’s about capturing the water in the rainy season and storing it.
What are the key aims of the Just a Drop organisation?
To reduce child mortality caused by poor sanitation and dirty water, and to reduce the numbers of people without access to clean water by providing a local clean water supply, latrines and health and hygiene education to remote communities across the world.
In a nutshell, how do you go about bringing clean water to the projects you have in Africa?
We respond to the social, cultural and environmental needs of the communities we work with, which means the solutions are different for different destinations. For example, in Zambia it’s a question of water reaching the aquifer at the time of the dry season and working to provide access to water all year round. Meanwhile in Kenya, which has an arid climate, we build sand dams and rainwater harvesting systems to help store water and keep it clean. Whereas in Uganda, we build more immediately localised shallow wells within village communities and water jars for the elderly who cannot walk to collect water and local latrines.
Which countries in Africa do you currently operate in, and do you have plans to expand further?
Currently we work in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia but we have in the past worked on projects in Tanzania, Swaziland, Malawi, Ethiopia and Morocco. While we only expand as our resources allow, we want to grow our footprint on Africa because of the positive difference it makes – we get a lot of return for the investment we put into Africa and the impact is truly transformational.
How do you work with locals to get projects up and running?
We work very closely with our partners, who help us identify the communities most in need, as wells as those who are prepared to help themselves. Our aim is not to simply provide aid, but to give communities the boost they need to help themselves.
Our project engineers, all of whom are volunteers and many ex-military, are used to working in difficult environments and capable of getting a job done. They work closely with all the communities we support, but ultimately it is the local people themselves who do all the hard work. We provide the expertise to ensure the work is done to high standards, but our most important value is sustainability and ensuring that once completed the community is trained to maintain the project.
Have you experienced any difficulties in working in Africa and bringing your projects into fruition?
There are always challenges and whilst the engineering solutions themselves aren’t difficult there are often environmental and social challenges that compound the process. However, the Just a Drop team is very experienced and we believe in doing things for the long term. If things take longer than we’d anticipated, so long as they are done properly, we still walk away with positive results that change lives. Our focus is about making our impact count.
There are a lot of concerns with corruption in Africa. Is this something you’ve witnessed, and if so how do you combat it?
It’s always a concern, but I have a fantastic treasurer and we’ve developed robust processes. As former military service men, our engineers know a lot of the tricks of the trade. They are honourable people who do not want to see Just a Drop’s reputation or the donated funds misused in any way.
What can readers do to help and support the organisation, both at home and on their African travels?
We always welcome support from lovers of Africa. As an organisation that works below the radar we aren’t well known by the travelling public, but we want to make each every donation count and leave a lasting legacy that genuinely improves the lives of women, children and their communities.
What are your hopes and aims for the organisation for the next five years?
I would like to see the organisation build and grow, allowing us to increase and improve our impact on lives across the world. In five years I think we can achieve a lot to help transform the organisation and its potential long-term impact, while never losing sight of how to do it well. One in 10 people in the world currently don’t have access to clean water and one in three to a toilet. Our job is to help improve these odds.
Do you think we’ll see an Africa with full access to clean water in our lifetime?
Sadly I don’t and my fear is the situation, thanks to climate change, will only get worse.
Based on your travels in Africa, what would be your one top tip to readers for travelling on the continent?
Always take the time to meet local people. Their warmth and joie du vivre really is infectious and will make you fall in love with Africa even more – there’s no continent like it in the world!