Adam Van Koeverden Transforming Lives in Madagascar


As featured in Horizon Travel Magazine

Now that Olympic champion kayaker Adam van Koeverden has moved on from his professional racing career, he’s proving to be a different kind of champion. As National Ambassador of WaterAid Canada, Adam is lending his voice to a global call: “clean water for all.” On a recent trip to Madagascar, Adam got his boots dirty visiting remote communities in the Belavabary Region. Adam shares with us his experience, in his own words…

Madagascar is famous for its unique wildlife and the cartoon movies that bear its name. It’s the 4th largest island in the world and the world’s principal supplier of vanilla and cloves. And as a result of French colonialism, home to really good pastries and baguettes.

Adam poses with Raoly, in the village of Tsarafangitra, Madagascar.

But what really sets Madagascar apart from most other countries in the world? Nearly half of its 24 million inhabitants don’t have access to safe drinking water, and 88% don’t have access to proper sanitation, like a toilet. The definition of “access to safe water” might surprise you, it shocked me. Access means that safe water is within a 30 minute round trip, not in your kitchen or bathroom.

I recently visited the village of Tsarafangitra in Madagascar with WaterAid, a global charity on a mission to provide access to clean water and sanitation to the most vulnerable communities in the world.

In Tsarafangitra I met Raoly, a very pregnant mother of two. Her husband works in the rice fields, so like most women in Africa, the retrieval of water is a big part of her daily routine. The closest water is about 1 kilometre away. Three or four times a day Raoly walks barefoot to the murky little spring that provides all the water for her community. On days where she does the washing, she might have to go back a fifth time.

As we sat in her family’s two-room home, she told me about her challenges and obstacles. She is concerned about having to make the daily water trek with her baby strapped to her back. As her family grows, so does their need for water. I asked Raoly what would make the biggest impact on her daily life. Her answer was swift and certain, “a well, we need clean water,” she said, with a hopeful nod.

I asked Raoly to take me along on one of her daily water treks. We walked along the road, and then through the cassava fields. Years ago, a tapioca factory employed most of this community’s inhabitants. When the factory closed, the community fell even deeper into poverty. Most locals now rely on cassava leaves and roots as one of their primary sources of nutrition. Cassava leaves are okay to eat once or twice a week, but relying on them as a staple can be detrimental to one’s health. Improper preparation can even cause cyanide poisoning.

About 15 minutes down the dirt road, we arrive at the local spring, which resembles an open pit. This is where everyone in the community of Tsarafangitra gets their water — water for drinking, washing, cooking, everything. It’s not clean or cold, and the nearby ponds are totally brown and swampy. Of all the traditional water points I’ve seen in Africa, this was the worst. Raoly and I filled two 20 litre jerry cans to the top.

It rarely takes Raoly less than half an hour to return carrying the heavy load. I stopped for increasingly longer rests, as my hands ached from the little handles. These jugs are 20 kilograms each. “That’s why we carry them on our heads,” Raoly informed me. I didn’t bother trying that. I stopped six or seven times for a break, Raoly smiled at me when I asked how many breaks she usually takes… “Three, sometimes only two.”

Raoly is an incredibly strong woman, she represents the resilience and determination of all Malagasy women. To me, she also symbolizes the vast potential that could be unleashed if all women and girls were relieved of the backbreaking and time-consuming burden of fetching water day in and day out. These women would have time to start small business; learn to read and write; take their rightful places in community affairs; spend time with families —or even take some rest.

WaterAid is currently working on bringing clean water to Tsarafangitra with a gravity fed water system that will start at a natural spring in the highlands and pipe clean, cold water to hundreds of people far below for the very first time ever.