Child of mine

A story about life without safe water in Mozambique

1.Niassa, Mozambique

This is Niassa province, in northern Mozambique. It is roughly the size of England, with plains and mountains mostly covered with sub-tropical rainforest.

A million people live across Niassa. Most are farmers, growing tobacco, corn, beans or cotton, often living on less than $2 a day.

The challenges to development here are immense: many people are illiterate, infrastructure barely exists, and memories of the civil war are fresh. While Mozambique’s economy has been growing steadily, Niassa remains one of the poorest regions in one of the world's poorest countries.

Niassa borders the eastern shore of the world’s ninth biggest lake, Lake Malawi.

More than half the people who live here do not have access to safe water.

They risk illness every day by relying on unsafe water sources, such as streams and surface-water pools. These are shared with wild animals like elephants, which contaminate water sources with their faeces.

Only one in five people here have access to a decent toilet.
Many have no choice but to suffer the indignity of defecating in the open.

2. Survival

The conditions in Niassa make it difficult to survive, and many parents have lost children.

One child in 71 will be killed before their fifth birthday by unsafe water and a lack of toilets.


Hilda lives in the village of Namavaresse in Niassa, more than 300km from the provincial town of Lichinga and a day's walk from the nearest medical centre. Like many other women here, Hilda collects water from an unprotected spring, a ten minute walk from her house. She uses this water for cooking, washing and drinking. She has no choice but to give this dirty water to her children to drink.

Last year, Hilda’s two-year-old son Edmilson died from diarrhoea caused by the dirty water she could not protect him from.

Edmilson was one of the half a million children worldwide who die from diarrhoeal diseases before their fifth birthday each year. That’s one child every minute. Children younger than five years old are ten times more likely to die in developing countries than in developed countries.

Hilda now has another four-year-old boy, Estephan. She is terrified that he too will die young.


Catarina lives in the village of Cuvir Rainha, about a one hour drive from Namavaresse. She grows corn, cotton and flat leaf tobacco.

Twice a day, she walks to a muddy spring near her home. She washes and cleans her clothes before carrying water home for cooking and drinking.

Like Hilda, Catarina has lost children because she had no choice but to give them dirty water to drink.

“I’ve had four children. Three died. Last year I lost my two-year-old daughter Tiana to diarrhoea. I became very skinny after her death. I was thinking about her so much.”


Jacinta lives in Namissimbe, not far from Catarina's village. She and her husband are farmers too, growing tobacco, corn, beans and millet, and raising chickens. And like Catarina, they have no access to safe water.

Drinking the only dirty water they have has killed two of Jacinta's children – a two-month-old girl, three years ago, and two-year-old Sophonia, just last year.

Sophonia had diarrhoea more severe than the other bouts she often faced. Her mother carried her on foot for hours to the nearest health centre, more than 20km away. There she was given a pill and kept in overnight. In the morning she was given an injection and Jacinta was told to take her home. Sophonia’s father and grandmother arrived to accompany Jacinta on the long journey back. But the little girl died on the way.

Jacinta now has a son, Salvadore, who is just under a year old.

“I want a good future for my son. When he gets sick I fear I will lose him like I lost Sophonia. We need many things but it is true that water and sanitation is the centre of everything. It will reduce disease.”

3. Health

Safe water and sanitation affect all aspects of child health. Malnutrition has serious consequences for children's development and increases their vulnerability to disease. A malnourished child will struggle much more to survive.

An estimated 50% of cases of malnutrition are associated with recurrent diarrhoea or intestinal infections caused by unsafe water and poor hygiene and sanitation.

When children have diseases such as malaria and pneumonia, both of which are common in Mozambique, they need safe water and sanitation for proper treatment. Illnesses that are treatable in developed countries become unmanageable when water is scarce and there are no safe toilets, and children are more likely to die.


At the remote Macua Health Centre, General Technical Officer Denis sees children suffering the direct and indirect effects of poor water and sanitation.

The centre serves four surrounding communities, although some people travel from much further away. Denis treats a lot of people with water-related illnesses, but in the four years he has worked there has seen such cases become less common thanks to people drinking safer water.

4. Beyond five

It is the youngest children, with their small reserves and fragile immune systems, who are most vulnerable to disease. As they get older, children stop crawling and put their hands in their mouths less, so diseases are contracted and spread less easily.

Children older than five are less at risk from the most severe effects of dirty water.

But children who have regularly been ill or malnourished during their first few years of life can be left with a chronic disease or disability.

Unsafe water and a lack of toilets also hold back children's education and development.


Rui is the director of Namavaresse Primary School. In his 16 years as a teacher in the area, he has worked in schools with and without safe water and has seen the life-changing difference it can make. In Namavaresse school, where there is no safe water, illness often stops children from attending.

5. Change

Investment in water and sanitation works. It makes change possible, saving lives and enabling people to take their first steps out of poverty.

Safe water for everyone, everywhere would generate global economic benefits of an estimated minimum of US$220 billion per year.

You can see the changes brought by safe water and sanitation clearly in the village of Nerculo.

Before WaterAid worked with local organisation ADECO to install a borehole, the community had never had clean water. Diarrhoea caused up to 50 deaths a year.

Today, people have safe water close to home and most households have an improved latrine. Children dying of diarrhoea is no longer a part of everyday life.


Paulino is a fisherman, around 70 years old, who lives in Nerculo. In 2011, a year before the borehole was installed, he lost his son Hermando to diarrhoea. The boy was only two months old.

Paulino’s grief for his son contributed to his motivation to become President of the Water Committee. Now he is one of Nerculo’s most passionate promoters of hygiene and looks after the maintenance of the pump. He is positive about his grandchildren’s future, and expects their lives to be free from the constant risk of diarrhoea his own children faced.

“In our community the men have to shave their heads when somebody dies, and for many years there were lots of deaths so I was bald most of the time. But now I am an old man and I have hair again!”


Juliana lives in the village of Namarika, and is lucky enough to have seen her community's situation improve.

Before the borehole was installed in 2012, the community lost about 20 people a year to diarrhoea – mostly children under five. WaterAid's local partner ADECO has also helped the community to build around 60 household latrines and provided hygiene education.

Juliana lives in one of houses closest to the handpump.

"In the past we had to travel a long way for water and it was dirty. There were insects in it and during the dry season we had to queue. There is not much diarrhoea anymore. When it happens it’s not because of the water. ”

Three of Juliana's eight children died from diarrhoea before clean water arrived in Namarika: Luisa, Esperanza and Vinisto. They were all under three years old. Juliana knows her two-year-old granddaughter Benedita will have entirely different chances from those of her own children.


In Hilda’s village of Namavaresse, WaterAid will work with the community and local government to provide clean water and safe toilets. For Hilda, this will mean less money spent on visits to the health centre, more time for her family and farming, and a chance for her son Estephan to reach his fifth birthday in good health. The massive challenges to development in Niassa begin with water.

The lack of safe water and sanitation in communities in Niassa, like in so many other regions, can make life desperately hard. But the deaths and illnesses are preventable.

We know the difference safe water, toilets and hygiene can make – we’ve seen it over and over again. Not just some children, but all children should have these basic human rights. Together, we can do so much more.

Help transform more lives with clean water and safe toilets. Visit our website.


Directed by
Guilhem Alandry - Doculab

Steve Melia - WaterAid
Alicia Robinson - WaterAid
Emily Graham - WaterAid

Guilhem Alandry - Doculab
Adam Patterson - Panos

Adam Patterson - Panos

Filmed by
Guilhem Alandry - Doculab
Mark Pengelly

Film Editing
Guilhem Alandry - Doculab
Leanne Welham
Alexander Ward
Jaswinder Randhawa

Rebecca Heald - WaterAid
Richard Steele - WaterAid

Picture Editor
Emily Graham - WaterAid

With thanks to ADECO in Niassa for their support on the ground and Rachel Bartlett at Shorthand for her valuable advice.