Untreated Water from Unprotected Sources: The Freetown Story

By Melvin Sharty, Freetown, Sierra Leone. March 17, 2024

For a decade, Wellington, Freetown, has been my home. But it's a home marred by challenges. Here, overcrowding forces families into tight spaces, transportation is a constant struggle, and electricity flickers on and off like a dying firefly. But the most critical hardship is the lack of readily available water. This basic necessity becomes a daily burden, a constant worry that hangs heavy in the air.

Imagine starting your day not with breakfast but with a miles-long walk before sunrise. This is the daily struggle for most children in Freetown, particularly those living in eastern, to reach a single point of hope—the water point—where their most basic need is met. This heartbreaking reality highlights the desperate need for accessible water sources.

In 2020, I hired 8 young people to map these points using KoboCollect, a geomagnetic technology. We aimed to identify real-time water access locations, but the data has sat unshared for two and a half years... until now. The photo below is a screen shot of the geo-data. The red dots represent locations where water points are found across the Wellington community.

The study revealed a startling truth: over 126 households in the eastern part of Freetown had no running water, relying solely on outdoor water points. As I reviewed the pictures, emotions flooded me, and questions swirled: How can people be expected to fetch water from such sources? Where is our dignity? Where are our leaders? Why don't homes have clean running water? What's the problem? How do we solve this?

A staggering 2 billion people globally are denied the fundamental right to clean drinking water.  This crisis extends far beyond access to water, with an estimated 46% of the world's population, or 3.6 billion people, lacking adequate sanitation services [according to the United Nations World Water Development Report (2023)].  In Sierra Leone, the situation reaches an even more critical state.

In a conversation with the 8 data collectors, solutions were shared about addressing the inadequate access to clean and safe household running water in Freetown. Here are excerpts from the data:

1. The need for upgrading existing water points.

2. Communities should be supported to build new water facilities.

3. Government and the private sector need to invest in water distribution systems.

4. Households should be educated on how to develop sustainable water management practices.

5. Government should collaborate with local authorities, youth leaders, and women to find solutions.

6. Donors should support local water management committees to monitor and advocate for clean, portable, and efficient water systems in Freetown and other communities within Sierra Leone.

While these were just a few of the solutions that came across from the study, I invite you to view the data yourself, as seen in the pictures. Imagine that today, 2 billion million people worldwide lack access to clean water (UN Water Development Report, 2023). In Sierra Leone, as you can see in these photographs, the situation is even more extreme. Share your thoughts, and together, we can create a future where everyone has access to dignified water facilities.