Water 'Key' to Better Future in Africa Millions of West Africans don't have access to safe drinking water, which can cause everything from dysentery to permanent parasitic blindness. Former Los Angeles District Attorney-turned-photographer Gil Garcetti traveled to West Africa, and his photos have been turned into a new book called Water is Key: A Better Future for Africa.
NPR logo

Water 'Key' to Better Future in Africa

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16879334/16879321" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Water 'Key' to Better Future in Africa

Water 'Key' to Better Future in Africa

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16879334/16879321" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Millions of West Africans don't have access to safe drinking water; that can cause everything from dysentery to blindness.

Photographer Gil Garcetti traveled to West Africa. His new book is "Water is Key: A Better Future for Africa." Peter Gleick is the book's editor. He's also the president of the global water research group, the Pacific Institute.

When I spoke earlier with both men, Garcetti described why he went to West Africa.

Mr. GIL GARCETTI (Author, "Water is Key: A Better Future for Africa"): I was invited to come as a photographer. I've just been kicked out of office as a district attorney in Los Angeles, so I went there with the intent to take photographs. Certainly, however, not to do a book or not to become a professional photographer, but this is now my fifth book, but it was my first real photographic project.

CHIDEYA: What was different about doing this?

Mr. GARCETTI: Well, the first couple of books were more architectural or urban photography, but here, I wanted to grab a hold of the industrial world, metaphorically speaking obviously, and say, look at this. These are people who do not have a basic need of life, and that is safe water. And there's, yes, all the consequences you can imagine, plus others, but the biggest tragedy is that there is plenty of safe water in West Africa. These countries, these people simply do not have the money, the resources, the expertise to bring it to their people.

CHIDEYA: Peter, how did you get involved and maybe outline some of the issues for us of access to water, clean water, how do you develop it?

Dr. PETER GLEICK (Editor, "Water is Key: A Better Future for Africa"): There are billions of people worldwide who don't have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation services. And that leads to water-related diseases, probably more than 2 million a year of preventable water-related disease mostly, unfortunately, of small children. So we've been working on this issue for a long time trying to understand it, trying to understand how to solve it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gil, Peter was just talking about children being affected by disease. You have a photograph; it says, don't enter the water with guinea worm, it shows some young boys around it. What exactly is guinea worm and where did you take this picture?

Mr. GARCETTI: That photograph was taken in Ghana. Guinea worm is a parasite that invades the body in one of two ways ordinarily. If you have, and it's usually girls who go and collect the water, if the girls go into a seasonal pond where the water comes and then, you know, evaporates, if they go in there and they have a little cut on their foot or an open sore, anything, the guinea worm parasite enters the body in that fashion, or you can actually drink it.

What happens is it begins to form a worm, and it's incredibly debilitating and painful. As it grows, it begins to burn incredibly. And what you want to do is just put your foot, your leg, your body, your arm, wherever it is in the water. That's what the worm wants you to do because as soon as it does that, it bursts through your skin and throws out the parasite and the cycle begins all over again.

CHIDEYA: So, Gil, you have a one picture of people and animals standing in this kind of shallow, muddy area, the women have buckets. Tell me about that picture and also what kinds of things people have to do to get water.

Mr. GARCETTI: The photograph that you are looking at is what they call a traditional well. That means it's a hand-dug well. It could be 30, 40-feet deep. The difficulty is there's no pump. They don't cover the water. And that means by - the fact they don't cover the water that you have insects and other parasites that come in, they infect the water. You see the animals walking around there. They pee, they defecate. Sooner or later, that gets down into the water level. That water is just absolutely horrible. I saw them take out this water and then tried to strain some of the gunk out through a gauze over the system.

The image that I have is of girls and young women carrying incredibly heavy cans of water going incredible distances. And if they don't go incredible distances, then they get to go three, four times a day rather than once or twice a day. One pint of water weighs one pound. Now, they're carrying three, four, five, six gallons on their head every day. And this is the typical scene in rural parts throughout West Africa.

CHIDEYA: So once you present some of the images like this, both of you have worked on the storytelling, Peter and then, Gil, maybe tell me about what kinds of stories from local West Africans you're trying to tell? Peter first.

Dr. GLEICK: Well, one of the incredibly valuable things about these images is that it does tell a series of stories. And one of the set of stories is look at how bad the failure to meet basic human needs for water can be. Look at the consequences. But the other story is that when you provide clean water and sanitation, which we know how to do, the incredibly wonderful things that happen, the girls that get to go to school because they don't have to spend hours each day trudging for kilometers, carrying hugely heavy quantities of water back for their families to use, the children that were sick and become healthy when they get access to clean water, the communities that come together around water projects, I think that's the value of the project.

Obviously, this money, the money spent to make this book could have been spent to work on water projects in Africa, but the opportunity to reach thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of people with information about how to solve these problems is what ultimately, I think, will be the value of this kind of a project.

CHIDEYA: Gil, what sticks with you from your travels?

Mr. GARCETTI: This is a positive story. This book is one of beauty, of hope, of optimism. I'll give you an example. We found a village where they had brought in water about six months before, and we found a mother who had sent her daughter to school. This mother, I interviewed. The mother said, my daughter is the first daughter, first girl in the history of this village to ever go to school.

I said, why is that important to you? And she said, well, she's going to learn. I said, well, what is she going to learn? I mean, (unintelligible) well, she's going to learn. We started getting each other's face a little bit. And finally, she said, oh, maybe she'll become a nurse because there's no one in this village, over 4,000 people, who help women during pregnancy, during childbirth and after children. Bingo. There it is. That's what safe water can do.

CHIDEYA: So finally, Gil, who are you really trying to reach with this book? This is in some ways, a fundraiser and an awareness raiser for other organizations. When someone picks up this book, what do you want them to see and learn?

Mr. GARCETTI: I want them to learn about the issue and the problem and that they can get involved. At the back of the book are listed the NGOs and non-government organizations that are working there. I want you to pick three or four of them, examine it, and then get involved.

Sure. You can give money. Donate $10 because once I get 100,000 people who donated $10, Peter and I are then going to go to Congress and say, look at what people have done. They've given money. They are telling you that we need to be involved with people who need our help.

CHIDEYA: And, Peter, finally, I wanted to ask about Liberia. You have contributions from Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. How is…

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Sorry, we had to cut that piece just a little short. And you can find the full version online at nprnewsandnotes.org.

Coming up next, a controversy about new greeting cards for your loved ones behind bars. And one man shares how a street car ride more than 50 years ago drove him to the Civil Rights Movement.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.