Sophie’s Dream of Clean Water

16 March, 2017

Sophie Hollingsworth is a former ballerina turned badass explorer. The Explorers Club “New Explorer of the Year 2017” awardee and founder of AquaAid International, she’s worked with remote villages in Namibia, Nicaragua, Madagascar, and Vanuatu to establish sustainable sources of clean drinking water and basic sanitation. She came to speak to us about her work with local communities and the larger environmental and cultural impact of clean water access. In this first of a 2-part series, Sophie shares the genesis and scope of her work. To see images and learn more about her water art projects, click here.

Llakaka, Madagascar - Sapphire mining, washing, and drinking water collection all from the same source.

At 22, I've lived the life that most people only dream of. I've trekked parts of the Amazon, paddled uncharted rivers in Madagascar, gotten tapeworms, danced with the Moscow Ballet… even had a black-magic spell placed on me by a tribe in the South Pacific. The one thing all of these places have in common is a lack of access to clean water. I founded AquaAid International to establish sustainable sources of clean drinking water and basic sanitation with communities in remote settings. Water for all, no exceptions. It’s a really easy thing to take for granted: turn on the tap, take a glass, and have a drink of water. Fresh water is crucial to society: not just for drinking, but for farming, washing, cooking, and to create all the goods and services that make up our global economy.

For the past few hundred years, every year has seen a decline in the number of people without access to clean water, but that's no longer the case. Water is becoming scarce. Currently, 663 million people don't have access to clean drinking water. That's about one in ten. And 15 years from now, two billion people will live in regions of severe water scarcity. Unsafe drinking water is responsible for more deaths than all forms of violence, including war. So understanding this problem really begins by considering the distribution of water on the planet.

“People don't need new facts, they need new stories.”

98% of all of the Earth’s water is salty. Of the 2% that's fresh, 70% is in snow and ice, leaving 30 to 29% in ground water, and really only 1% easily accessible for human use. Climate change is directly affecting the water cycle, is projected to significantly reduce the renewable surface water and groundwater resources, and will intensify competition for clean water. The direct impact of climate change isn’t the only reason to be concerned about the future of fresh water. The increasing global population creates a greater demand on water for agriculture, irrigation, and the potential for more water pollution. Furthermore, the rising affluence of many countries equates to a larger number of people living water-intensive lifestyles.

I had always known about the global water crisis, but when I spent time in Bahia Honda, Panama, I truly began to understand. On this island, I met a single father in a dug-out canoe with two little girls, who was looking to trade coconuts for fishing hooks. The girls and I got to talking, and I found out that they were elated to be future students. I was curious why this was the first time that they were going to be attending primary school, as they looked older than the normal enrollment age. The girls told me that there was a new underwater pipeline supplying their home island with clean drinking water, which meant that they had to spend less time acquiring water, so they could actually go to school. Previously, it took the girls almost a day's travel to another island to get clean water. The girls only had one pencil between the two of them. So in return for the fifteen coconuts, the crew and I gave the family a bin to collect supplemental rain water, some milk, a loaf of bread, and much to the dismay of the captain, every single pen and pencil that I could find on board. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about water, sanitation, and the environment, purely out of my own nerdy fascination.

Sophie teaches rural Nicaraguans about water filtration.

During this time, I met a deck hand who told me that the village his family lived in still had no access to clean drinking water. We decided to begin fundraising with the idea that the funds could be donated to an organization already working in Nicaragua to implement the project. As it turns out, the extreme remoteness of the village and religious stipulations of many organizations, left us with the funds for a water project but no committed organizations to facilitate the project, so I decided to undertake the task myself. Almost everyone around me told me it wasn't possible. I was too young. I was still in high school. I didn't have the experience. All of which was correct, but I believed the idea was possible, and I worked night and day to make my dream a reality. I was eighteen years old, young enough to trek into the Sandinista-occupied Nicaraguan jungle, but old enough to know that what I was working toward was worth the risk.

Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes, with an absolute abundance of fresh water, but actually very, very little of it is safe to drink. Years of inadequate public investment, wars, and natural disasters have left 800,000 people without access to clean water. The resulting diseases keep kids out of school and stifle economic growth. In the face of climate change, Nicaragua expects to see a decrease in available drinking water in urban centers and a spike in violence due to the unequal distribution and use of water in the country.

So in 2012, I first traveled to a remote village in the southern autonomous region of Nicaragua. From the capital Managua, the journey took three days: one day in an expedition truck, bouncing around on roads with elephant-sized potholes; a day and a half on horseback, followed by about half a day in a dugout canoe; all topped off with a three-hour trek at the end. Expedition travel was not a part of my upbringing, so I learned a lot on this first trip. The first night, we stayed outside the capital in a hut that was divided in half: half for humans, half for horses. That night, I left my jeans hanging over my backpack. The next morning, we awoke to a symphony of roosters, and babies, and cows ready to be milked. I slipped on my jeans, only to find out that fire ants had taken up residence in my jeans in the night. I was about to embark on a twelve-hour horseback ride with ants, literally, in my pants. Now I shake out all my clothes before putting them on!

School children engage in Water Art.

When we finally arrived in the village, we met with the community and listened to their goals for water and sanitation development. AquaAid believes that no two communities are the same, so no two water and sanitation projects should be the same. There really is no one size fits all development solution. Each project is designed alongside the community to address their specific water and sanitation goals. Since our initial trip, AquaAid has provided sustainable access to clean drinking water to over 800 people in the Southern Autonomous Region. We've taught hundreds of kids about the importance of water safety, and even designed a new type of latrine that converts waste to fertilizer. Creative solutions to humanitarian and environmental needs are increasingly important.

Last year, AquaAid shifted its focus from working with communities to provide sustainable sources of clean water to really helping empower locals to act independently of outside aid, and develop their own sources of clean water. On Malakula Island in the Vanuatu islands (where more than half the people lack access to clean water and basic sanitation — and which will, as a result of climate change, be underwater in as little as 50 years), I worked with parliament members and community elders to train them in bio-sand filter technology. Bio-sand filters are a household water treatment device that can be produced locally, entirely by the user, with resources found all around the house. So, the filter consists of a container, with a lid, and enclosing layers of sand and gravel. Which physically trap particulate matter, pathogens, and all sorts of gnarly bacteria. But all of these facts about climate reality in Vanuatu and around the world, are neutral until human beings add their own meaning. People don't need new facts, they need new stories.

Water Art Installation in Southern Autonomous Region, Nicaragua.

To learn more about Sophie’s experience and clean water through the lens of art, read Part 2.

Words by The Editors. Photos by Sophie Hollingsworth.

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