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Access to clean water is a huge challenge for billions of people in the developing world. Just getting water can be a major burden, let alone water that won't make them sick. We head to Tajikistan now for an illustration of that problem.

The mountainous Central Asian nation has huge rivers that flow west from the Hindu Kush and the High Pamirs, yet most people there lack access to adequate supplies of water. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports the situation has gotten steadily worse since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Outside of the Tajik capital, most families allocate several hours a day just to collecting water. The task usually falls to kids, women and old people, like 66-year-old Nazarali Murodov.

NAZARALI MURODOV: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Murodov has brought his donkey cart to an open, rusted pipe just off the main road in the village of Navbahor in Southern Tajikistan. The cart is loaded with yellow plastic jugs and large metal milk cans. Murodov says getting water is one of the family's most important daily chores.

MURODOV: (Through translator) Yes, this is the most crucial thing because in family, if someone is free, he goes to fetch water and spends two, three hours for this.

BEAUBIEN: Murodov can haul roughly 50 gallons of water on each trip with his donkey. There are 10 people living in his home, and he says they use one load a day just for drinking, cooking and cleaning. If he has time, he tries to make a second trip so he can irrigate their garden.

MURODOV: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: There's a bustle of activity at this water pipe. Two young men are loading jerry cans into the trunk of a rusted Lada sedan. Some kids have come with jugs tied onto their bicycles. Several girls have brought carpets to the pipe and are scrubbing them in the gravel where the water spills onto the ground. There's no spigot or shut-off valve. The water just pours out of the broken, corroded pipe.

MURODOV: (Through translator) Ten or 15 years ago, there was a pump here and a nice water stand. But now, it's all gone and it's this. No one is caring about this now.

BEAUBIEN: Murodov says under the Soviets, there were more water taps in the village, and they were better maintained. The former Soviet republic of Tajikistan is squeezed between Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. Of its seven million people, roughly one million work abroad as migrant laborers. Women are left to run the households, including making sure there's enough water.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: In the neighboring village of Delolo, this woman sings about the daily difficulties of life and asks God to help her overcome her hardships. Earlier this year, the local government in Delolo built a new gravity-fed system that pipes water to 75 homes. This is meant to help ease the burden on local women. Before the system started working, 26-year-old Rahmonova Parvina says she would spend half of each day trekking up and down a hill to get water.

RAHMONOVA PARVINA: (Through translator) So I don't have a donkey. I went to fetch water two, three times a day. From the early morning till the afternoon, I only fetch water. And then I did some - for the half day, I did some housework and supervise my kids, if I have spare minutes.

BEAUBIEN: Parvina says having a tap in her yard has transformed her daily routine. Now, she has more time for her kids. She can irrigate her vegetable garden. Her husband works in Russia and sends money home to support the family, but Parvina says she now has time to sew traditional Tajik dresses and earn some cash herself.

PARVINA: (Through translator) She says that her life has changed because now she grows something on the land, and she's doing her small business, and she has her own money.

BEAUBIEN: The new water taps and reservoir for Parvina's village are being funded by the Swiss government's international development agency in conjunction with Oxfam. Davide Costa, the manager of the project, says Soviet water infrastructure went into decline towards the end of the communist period and hasn't been maintained since.

DAVIDE COSTA: So the situation now is that more than half of the population of Tajikistan is without access to water. If you consider to safe water, it is about 5 percent of the rural population of Tajikistan. It is a...

BEAUBIEN: Five percent have safe water?

COSTA: Yeah, which is nothing.

BEAUBIEN: Access to adequate sewage facilities is similarly dismal in much of the country. This has led to repeated outbreaks of typhoid and other waterborne diseases. Oxfam has built three village water systems in Tajikistan and plans to build 40 more. The systems are owned and managed by local users associations. Costa says one of the most important things about the projects is that villagers have to pay for the water they use. This encourages conservation, and it provides funding to maintain the systems in the future. Jason Beaubien, NPR News

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