Aïda Muluneh: Water Life

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Currently, one in three women in the world do not have access to a decent toilet, and it is estimated that 335 million girls go to school without water or soap available when changing sanitary products. But, the implications of this lack of clean water go beyond immediate health and sanitation issues. 

Many societies rely on women for water collection, which is used for cooking, cleaning, and bathing. While living in Ethiopia, photographer Aïda Muluneh encountered women who travelled for hours by foot, carrying heavy vessels of water back to their homes. Her latest series Water Life, commissioned by WaterAid, expresses these harsh daily realities, which not only affect a woman’s personal life but the future of their communities. Now, with the rise of extreme weather events caused by climate change, the competition for clean water is rapidly increasing. Severe droughts make its availability unpredictable, and flooding threatens to contaminate the supply, spreading diseases faster.

© WaterAid/Aida Muluneh

Muluneh, who was born in Ethiopia, shot the project in a northern town called Dallol, which currently holds the world record for the highest average annual temperature. “It is a beautiful landscape,” says Muluneh, “it’s a photographers dream, but dealing with the environment was the biggest challenge”. Working in 40-degree-heat, the photographer used the barren desert as a backdrop for 12 new images, which will be exhibited at Somerset House in London this month.

In her signature Afrofuturist style, Muluneh incorporates traditional body painting and African garments — “I find them to be very contemporary,” she says — as well as the yellow Jerry Cans that are used to collect water. “There are images that were planned, and images we came up with on location, because being in a desert inspired me in different ways,” says Muluneh. 

© WaterAid/Aida Muluneh

Muluneh left Ethiopia at a young age, spending most of her childhood between Yemen and England, but, “I always found that my heritage and who I am culturally is something that you can’t deny,” she says. “I wanted to take these symbols of Africa and bring them into a new perspective, while also expressing  what I wanted to say without the cliché that we see in mainstream media.”

Water Life by Aida Muluneh will be exhibited at Somerset House from 24 September until 20 October 2019

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.