“Unsafe water kills more people than war.”
When I first heard this statement, I was caught off guard. In 2017, really? I come from Israel, a country troubled by both lack of water and war, and somehow I had never heard this. How could this be?
Hundreds and millions of people live in Africa without access to clean drinking water, resulting in famine and poverty, and the world turns a blind eye to the situation. As a documentary filmmaker and photographer, this reality was hard for me to believe, and I needed to see it with my own eyes. I felt compelled to take my camera to Africa to shed light on this problem.
I reached out to Sivan Ya’ari, a charismatic and vivacious Israeli entrepreneur who has been fighting African poverty for the past 20 years. Sivan is the founder and CEO of Innovation:Africa, a humanitarian organization that helps supply clean water and solar energy to remote African villages through implementation of innovative Israeli agricultural technologies. Sivan invited me to travel with her team to Uganda, where I gained a deeper insight into the African water and hunger struggle and learned more about her work.
It became apparent to me that the main victims of the water crisis are the women and children. They spend countless hours a day searching for, and collecting water in jerry cans that they carry to their families. Long distances are traveled, and physical toll is taken to find water that, at the end of the day, is dirty and often contaminated. Not only does this affect health, it also keeps children out of school, and robs adults from being able to find work, resulting in the indefinite perpetuation of poverty.
Sivan herself came from a background of little means, and was able to harness her own personal story into action, and spark change in a continent she fell in love with 20 years ago. After her first trip to Africa, Sivan was so deeply affected by the living conditions there that she returned to Israel and applied to Columbia University, where she eventually received her Masters in International Energy Management and Policy. At just 20 years old, Sivan had already identified the need for a more sustainable energy solution and began working on what would later become Innovation:Africa.
When I joined Sivan in Uganda, I quickly learned that she keeps a very tight schedule; not a single moment goes to waste. She works around the clock, visiting village after village, with her team of Israeli and local professionals. Whenever Sivan arrived at a new village, she was greeted with songs and dances, and if you listened carefully, you could hear one word repeated surprisingly often: “Israel.” Trough her mission to end African poverty and hunger, it seems that Sivan has become a kind of ambassador of Israel.
As we traveled from village to village, I wondered about the beginning of her journey. 300 million people in Africa live in a water-scarce environment. Where does one even begin to try and solve the problem? Sivan told me her story:
“We started by installing solar panels in clinics so that women would not have to give birth in the dark. As a mother of three, seeing women in those conditions pained me. When there is no electricity, not only does a birth in the dark endanger the mother and baby, but there is also no way to store vaccines for the newborn, which increases the risk on his life. After this, we began bringing solar panels to schools so that children could learn in the evening because, as we know, without education there is no future.
Over time, we got to the root of the issue and realized that we had to deal with two major problems: water and energy. This equation would solve all of the problems regarding African poverty. How can we do it? Easily. Clean water exists in abundance right under the feet of the locals in aquifers, sometimes only by a depth of a few meters. And energy we have from a never-ending source: the sun. Because Israel is also faced with similar challenges, the technology already existed, and we didn’t need to invent anything new. We built a solar powered model that can pump water from the aquifers, and computers can send us data to Israel, and notify us of any irregularities.”
We traveled on, Sivan speaking enthusiastically about the technologies she is bringing to Africa, and I wondered if this problem is one that could be solved in our lifetime. I realized, looking out the car window, we were getting further and further from civilization.
We were traveling to the Karamoja territory, which held an interesting historical significance to our Israeli team. In 1903, British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain had suggested the area to Theodor Herzl as a place of settlement for the Jews, as part of the Jewish Uganda scheme. The plan was eventually rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, and I wondered what our team would find there, over a century later.
Karamoja is the driest part of Uganda, prone to extreme periods of drought and famine. In 1980, one of the worst famines in history occurred there, killing 21% of the population. Sivan’s team planned to implement drilling systems there that would pump water from underground, and bring fresh, clean water to a territory that had suffered for far too long.
As we continued to drive, houses became huts made of straw, roads were unpaved, and the local people looked thinner and thinner. This was my first exposure to such extreme conditions of poverty, and the further we drove, the reality worsened. Heavy famine and exhausting drought pervaded the area. We met locals who were forced to eat leaves and mice in order to survive. All their energy was expended into gathering water from stagnant puddles or from sources where wildlife also drank and defecated. The sense of sheer hopelessness was unshakable. However, unlike me, Sivan is no stranger to these conditions, nor is she disheartened by them. She carries on determined and steadfast, knowing that soon there will be clean drinking water here too, and this hell will be transformed into a little heaven on earth.
As of today, Innovation:Africa has installed 130 projects in 7 African countries, impacting the lives of nearly 1 million people.
I will never forget the moment I witnessed a child drinking fresh water for the first time, flowing freely from a tap, after all his life he drank from a dirty puddle. It was an extraordinary experience. Sivan’s work, along with her dedicated team, is truly inspiring. I returned home feeling hopeful, knowing that there are people who fight against the impossible, and work tirelessly to make the concept “world hunger” one that will remain only as words in history books.