On this day 10 years ago, the UN recognised clean water and sanitation as a human right, but one in ten people still lack access. Wateraid commissioned 10 visual artists from the global south to respond
Over the past 10 years, since the United Nations officially recognised clean water and sanitation as a human right, millions have gained access, and close to half of the world’s developing countries have amended their constitutions to include water and sanitation as a civil right. Progress has been made, but 785 million — one in 10 — people still lack access to clean water close to home, and two billion — one in four — don’t have access to a decent toilet of their own.
To mark this milestone, and to draw attention to the challenges faced by those who still lack access, WaterAid has commissioned 10 visual artists from the global south to create a new image. The responses are varied: Joseph Obanubi and Collin Sekajugo explore how the job of collecting water in many African communities falls on women and girls, for example, while Poulomi Basu and Henry J. Kamara interrogate the idea of access to water as a luxury.
The images intend to highlight WaterAid’s call on global governments to double their investments in providing water and sanitation to those in need during the Covid-19 crisis. Here, we share their responses, as well as insight into the process of behind the image.
A Lopsided Tale I by Joseph Obanubi
“For many communities, water sources are usually far from their homes, and it typically falls to women and girls to spend much of their time and energy fetching water, a task which often exposes them to attack from men and even wild animals.
“Without improved sanitation – a facility that safely separates human waste from human contact – people have no choice but to use inadequate communal latrines or to practise open defecation. Finding a place to go to the toilet outside, often having to wait until the cover of darkness, can leave them vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault. In the immediate environment, the exposed faecal matter will be transferred back into people’s food and water resources, helping to spread serious diseases such as cholera.
“[The work] dabbles into spirituality, functionality and gender, referencing Nigerian-Yoruba sitting sculptures with the poses. It dwells on the healing qualities of water as an integral part of things. Water is a basic element of life and an essential factor in the Yoruba religion. Yoruba believe water to be a symbol of force and strength.”
Vegetable Garden, T Fish by Saïdou Dicko
All on her by Collin Sekajugo
“This piece is centred around the role of women and girls in the development of African society. However, despite the significance of their contribution towards the latter, women and girls have for generations been held captive by patriarchy hence becoming a major topic for concerned creatives like me.
“It’s with this notion that I adopted a picture of a young woman carrying a load of empty jerrycans in search of clean water to cater for her family. Although this imagery may not be uncommon across the underdeveloped world, I thought that the model’s portrait would depict the plight of underprivileged women and children while the jerrycan denotes consumerism. Essentially, Africa’s socioeconomic drive is so dependent on hardworking yet underprivileged women and children.”
“Water is essential for life, but it is more than that. Water allows us to celebrate, to relax, socialise, and to be joyful. This is a quality that we in the western world easily take for granted. My work very much talks about the quality of life in relation to water and how access to clean water is essential for our soul as well as for our body.
“I immediately thought of rain and how water falls from the sky that we all share. I then remembered taking photographs of people playing under the rain in Mexico…The water looked like stars. My current work is involved with doing my own drawings on top of photographs, and…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.”
Constant Ritual by Giya Makondo-Wills
“The initial idea came from the constant reminders to wash our hands during the pandemic. 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 facet that could be turned off by using your elbow and not your hands), a soap dispenser with liquid soap, and disposable paper towels. All of these are not universally accessible, even within the U.K.
“I 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. Access to clean water in relation to ancestral practice and cultural customs is often overlooked, so 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.”
Tomorrow’s World by Serge Attukwei Clottey
“I wanted to create art that would represent the anguish and violence that go along with our planet’s problems. 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. Ghana is facing some of the most detrimental consequences of climate change and water shortages. Yet the government does nothing, so I have taken it upon myself to educate through art.”
Untitled: After Lee Miller by Poulomi Basu
“My response is a reflection on how many of us, particularly when living in the west, take the bathroom and easy access to water for granted. It is a commonality that unites us all. Even those we consider despotic, have easy access to such sanitation, whilst this is a right denied for many women and girls around the world, particularly those in the global south.
“I’ve replaced [Lee Miller’s photo of herself in Hitler’s bathtub] with ‘Anjana, a 12-year-old child bride, from my series, Blood Speaks, 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.
“The water in the bathtub is blood red: a symbol of menstruation. I have kept the boots but added a bucket, a symbol of the great distances the 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.
“I hope that this image makes people reflect on the easy access we have to water and sanitation, and how for so many women and girls across the world, this is simply not the case.”
É o fim do caminho by Cristina de Middel
“The abundance of water does not necessarily mean the quality of water. 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.”
Pour me Water, Pure Water by Dafe Oboro
Wata by Henry J. Kamara
“In the past, Bonthe was a thriving trade hub and economic centre. In the eighties, palm products and seafood became major industries. 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. During the two world wars, the French and English navy used the town as a naval base. This Victorian water pump is a reminder that the right to clean water and decent toilets is a luxury afforded only to those who are fortunate.
“The time to change this is now. Taking a moment to show gratitude for this seemingly basic right every time you wash your hands or take a shower adds another drop of water to the sea of change. But above all, it is the world leaders who must accept responsibility. 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 will enable sovereignty and access to water is available to everyone, not just some.”
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.