Madagascar is famous for it's unique wildlife, the cartoon movies that bear it's name, and for vanilla. 90% of all of it's plant and animal species are endemic to Madagascar, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. It's the 4th largest island in the world and the world's principal supplier of vanilla and cloves, and thanks to French colonialism, home to really good pastries and baguette. 

But what really sets Madagascar apart from the rest of the world? Over half of it's 22 million inhabitants don't have access to safe drinking water, and 90% don't have access to proper sanitation or a toilet. The definition of "access to safe water" might surprise you, it shocked me. Access means that water is within a 30minute round trip, not in your kitchen or bathroom. What that means is that about 12 million people in Madagascar alone have to go farther than 30minutes to find safe water. 

I visited Madagascar this past weekend and spent a day in the field with WaterAid Madagascar. WaterAid's mission is to provide access to clean water and sanitation to the most vulnerable communities in the world. Early Saturday morning my three friends, Ernest, Nary and Rado and I set off from Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital city, for Belavabary commune. We visited two communities; Tsarafangitra (a pre-intervention village, WaterAid is working hard to install water taps early next year) and Belavabary (a post-intervention village, WaterAid installed 4 water points and toilets at the school and health centre, their first in the community).

I put this photo essay together in an attempt to illustrate what water access means to the people of Madagascar. When you consider where to donate your money for #GivingTuesday today, consider a donation to WaterAid. The Government of Canada will triple it today (and all the way until the end of January), so give $25 - what it costs to provide safe water and sanitation to one person indefinitely, and a family of four will benefit when the Government tops it up to $100.

This is Raoly. Here we are in her home in Tsarafangitra. She's about 8 months pregnant, due any week now. She already has two kids and her husband works in the rice fields, so like most women in Africa, the retrieval of water is a big part of her daily routine. The closest water is only about 1km away; 3 or 4 times a day Raoly walks barefoot to the murky little spring that provides all the water for her community. On days where she does the washing, she might have to go back a 5th time. She says it's better to go early, as the water seems to get dirtier throughout the day. As we sat in her family's two-room home, she told me about her challenges and obstacles. She's worried that her baby will come before the rainy season, or that the rain won't fill the rice paddies. She is concerned about having to make the daily water trek with her baby strapped to her back. As her family grows, so does their need for water. I asked Raoly what would make the biggest impact on her daily life. Her answer was swift and certain, "a well, we need clean water" she said, with a hopeful nod. WaterAid is currently working to bring water points to Tsarafangitra in April 2017.

I asked Raoly to take me along on one of her daily water treks. We walked along the road, and then through the cassava fields you can see here. Years ago, a tapioca factory employed most of this communities inhabitants. So, Belavabary is rich in cassava plants, a resilient and drought resistant crop. Since the factory closed, the locals have relied on cassava leaves and roots as one of their primary sources of nutrition. Cassava leaves are okay to eat once or twice a week, but relying on them as a staple can be detrimental to one's health. Improper preparation can cause cyanide poisoning, and the leaves can promote goiters and ulcers. Raoly and I walked about 10-15minutes to the local spring. I got a sunburn on my neck.

This is where everyone the community of Tsarafangitra gets their water. Water for drinking, washing, cooking, everything. It's not clean or cold, and the nearby ponds are totally brown and swampy. They don't have the ability to purify the water beyond boiling it. It's common practice to add clorox to drinking water in Africa, but it's relatively expensive and it's not available in Belavabary. Of all the wells and water points I've seen in Africa, this was the worst. Raoly and I filled two 20L gerry cans to the top. About half of the water her family of four needs on a typical Saturday.

I insisted on carrying Raoly's water for her. There is a steep, treacherous hill right next to the spring that she nimbly descends and ascends many times a day, barefoot and pregnant. There's no way I will ever truly understand Raoly's hardship, but I thought if I take part in this ritual, maybe I'll gain a deeper level of sympathy for what she goes through. Her experience is not unique, millions of women do this everyday. If all I am left with is sore hands I thought to myself, "at least Raoly gets a day off". As we climbed the hill, I couldn't believe how hard it was. "Raoly, you are very strong" I said to her... she just laughed it off, "I have to be" she said.

It rarely takes Raoly less than half an hour return. I stopped for increasingly longer rests, as my hands ached from the little handles. These jugs are 20kg each. "That's why we carry them on our heads", Raoly told me. I didn't bother trying that. The woman in the background said it was nice to see a white man carrying water, with a chuckle. I stopped six or seven times for a break, Raoly smiled at me when I asked how many breaks she usually takes... "three, sometimes only two". Hmm.

Raoly showed me where the water goes in her kitchen hut. This is where she does all of her cooking. I was happy to put them down for good, my hands were killing me. 

As Raoly and I parted ways, I thanked her again for the experience and insight, and wished her luck with the arrival of her third child. She said again that she hopes it rains before her baby comes, and that she's excited for the WaterAid project to be completed in April. Raoly is an incredibly strong woman, she represents the resilience and determination of all Malagasy women. 

Tsarafangitra was the pre-intervention WaterAid village we visited. They are still researching exactly how and where they will install the gravity fed water system. It will start in the highlands, at a natural spring, and up to 5km of pipe will be laid underground providing hundreds of people with new access to clean, cold water that they don't need to devote hours of their day, and risk falling down a steep hill while pregnant, to retrieve.

On to the post-intervention village of Belavabary.

This water point is named "Mendrika" which means "Deserved". Water is a basic human right, not a privilege. It's a right that the people of Belavabary now experience everyday. This woman told me about the little cup they've left on the ledge of this water point. "Mendrika is on a busy road, so people who walk to work often stop here for a drink along the way", she told me. She also told me about what she does, now that a big part of her day has become available. "I have a small shop, my own business". Since she lives along the road, people stop to purchase food and supplies from her little store. The extra time in her day that this well has left her with is allowing her to provide for her family, be entrepreneurial and self sufficient. Poverty is truly sexist, and when we empower women, the whole world benefits.

This is Kanto, the second water point we visited in Belavabary. Kanto means "beautiful". The smiles on these little girls' faces are fairly indicative of the beauty of this village, and the happiness that access to water and sanitation brings. Kids in the post-intervention village were happier, more active and more energetic. They seemed healthier and certainly weren't shy about their enthusiasm for their newly installed water points. 

In addition to providing safe drinking water from the water points, this WaterAid project in Belavabary built these pit latrines at the school. A safe place to use the bathroom in private is especially important for young women, who are less likely to attend school if their school lacks proper sanitation facilities. Menstruation is heavily stigmatized in many areas, leading to girls being too ashamed to attend school while menstruating. A secure place to use the toilet ensures that girls won't miss school on account of having her period. Look how progressive this toilet system is with a separate facility for those with a disability! The handicapped toilet has a handrail and improved seating. There are urinals around the back for the boys and a hand washing station along the side. There is a separate facility currently under construction around the corner which will be dedicated to the health centre. Open defecation is a huge health risk in the developing world, and water security includes a safe place to use the toilet. Facilities like this are a human right.

This picture says it all.

Before we lined up for a photo, one of the teachers asked all the boys and girls to wash up so that their faces would be clean for the photographer. You've never seen 10 kids under 10 so enthusiastic about sanitation! They lined up and one by one cleaned up and put on their best smiles for our photo opp. Thanks to this WaterAid intervention, the kids in Belavabary have healthier sanitation practices, and drink clean & safe water, which leads to far less frequent gastro upset and diarrhea. Diarrhea is the second leading cause of death for kids in Madagascar, killing over 2100 kids every year. Their nutrition is vastly improved when they eat foods prepared with clean water, and they can stay hydrated if they do get the runs. Their improved nutrition wasn't only evident in the smiles on their faces, but their happy bellies too! These guys honestly made my day.

Today is #GivingTuesday. Every dollar you donate will be matched three-fold by the Canadian Government. Water is a basic human right, one that every person in the world should be able to take for granted. Water is life, it's truly what we are #MadeOf. I'm donating $25 now so that a whole family will have access to clean and safe drinking water for years to come. Will you join me? DONATE HERE.