Human Planet Explorer
Drinkable water is essential for human survival, but in many parts of the world people have no immediate access to it and must work to get it. In the deserts of Africa, for example, Samburu herders rely on wild elephants to find waterholes for them, while people living in the Andes have come up with a remarkable way to trap the water in the air – nets.
Photo: Tuareg men pulling up water for cattle herd at well in semi desert area in Algeria.
As anyone who has done a survival course can tell you, we can survive weeks without food but only a matter of days without water. Of course, many of us are lucky enough to have water on tap, but according to the UN, only 42% of people in rural areas had access to clean water in 2004. For those people, sourcing water can take a great deal of effort and ingenuity.
The Hamar of Ethiopia, for example, must walk long distances in grueling temperatures to get water from their nearest wells. And that’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is carrying the water back for the other villagers since water is anything but light.
In fact, water is so heavy that carrying it any great distance is often a very inefficient way to keep yourself topped up. When women and children from the Tubu tribe set off across the desert for market, they know that the walk will take them eight days in temperatures that can exceed 45C. They also know that the only way to survive is by remembering the location of a single well along the way, their only lifeline in a sea of emptiness.
Relying on the navigational skills passed down by their mothers, the women must take their bearings from the stars and read the shapes of the sand dunes. But take one wrong turn in these ever-shifting sands and death may be just around the corner.
In Kenya, the Samburu people don’t rely on themselves to find water when the river runs dry, but on the skills of wild elephants. Since the elephants have an amazing ability to detect underground water, the Sumburu keep close tabs on them and then take their water from the shallow wells that the elephants leave open for them. Back in their village, the Samburu thanks the elephants by filling troughs which they leave out for thirsty animals. It is part of their belief system that no living thing should suffer the agony of dying from lack of water, especially those animals who help to keep the herdsmen and their families alive.
But while some people must go in search of water, others like the Chileans of the Atacama Desert have learned to wait for it to come to them. As the wind blows across the Pacific, it draws up water from the sea until it becomes a thick fog. When the fog then hits the desert coastline it is trapped by lichen on cacti and condenses into water that is drunk by the local animals. Inspired by this, local people now set down huge nets that line the hills and trap the fog as it rolls across the desert. As the fog condenses, the precious liquid runs through pipes that lead down to the grateful villages below. As usual, Mother Nature has all the best tricks.