Celebrating 10 years of water and sanitation as a human right, with 10 photographers from around the world
Ten years ago, the United Nations General Assembly officially recognised the human right to water and sanitation. This means governments should be held to account if citizens are denied access to these essential services.
It seems unimaginable that such basic things, which allow people to thrive, were only officially recognised so recently. However, it was a huge triumph and positive step in galvanising action to ensure everyone, everywhere has access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
While progress has been made around the world over the last decade, 785 million people still don’t have clean water close to home and 2 billion people don't have a decent toilet of their own.
To mark the progress, and to highlight how far the world still has to go, we commissioned ten visual artists to each produce one original new work on the subject of water and sanitation as a human right.
The photographers come from countries across the Global South and diaspora communities, bringing personal perspectives on identity, race and representation to the central theme of what life is like with or without clean water and decent sanitation.
We are using these striking new images to call on governments around the world to double their investments in providing clean water and good hygiene to those most in need, which takes on a renewed urgency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dafe Oboro is a filmmaker, photographer and producer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He documents communities and youth culture on the streets of Lagos focusing on culture and identity, as well as the themes of masculinity and social marginalisation.
Dafe's image touches on the subject of bathing and the importance of having access to clean water to perform this daily ritual.
He considers the work a tribute to the workers he sees around him in Lagos - the mechanics, the plumbers and the bricklayers - who bathe, with their shorts on, behind parked buses. They don’t have easy access to clean running water but they strive to find enough water to bathe in. Much needed after a long day’s work.
Monica Alcazar-Duarte is an award winning British-Mexican multidisciplinary visual artist. Born in Mexico City, her experiences as a migrant have greatly influenced her work, focusing on the sense of loss through transitioning between places, and the need for equality.
Monica’s mesmerising creation is a piece of video art, using a photograph of a girl overlaid with animated hand drawings.
Monica said: “Water is essential for life: it allows us to celebrate, to socialise, to be joyful. This is a quality that we in the western world easily take for granted. When WaterAid commissioned the piece I immediately thought of rain and how water falls from the sky that we all share. I remembered taking photographs of people playing under the rain in Mexico. The water looked like stars.
“I wanted the drawings to express the lightness, joy and life-giving properties of water. Water not only cleans us and sustains us, but it also calms us and gives us pleasure and relaxation.”
Multimedia artist Joseph Obanubi, who is also based in Lagos, Nigeria, chose to focus on the impact a lack of access to clean water can have on women and girls, who are usually responsible for water collection. Joseph also created a second piece, which highlights the risks of open defecation:
“For many communities, water sources are usually far from their homes, and it typically falls to women and girls to spend much of their time and energy fetching water, a task which exposes them to attack from men and even wild animals. They also have to find a place to go to the toilet outside, often having to wait until the cover of darkness, which can leave them vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault.
“I wanted to communicate the right to clean water and hygiene with symbolic elements and a blend of the surreal. I employed symbolism and futurism in an Afro context. The head is a symbolic part of the body in the Nigerian-Yoruba culture.”
Collin Sekajugo is a Ugandan multidisciplinary artist living and working in Rwanda and Uganda. His work is rooted in the community and explores issues of social, cultural, economic and political identity. He has exhibited around the world and won several awards including the Human Rights Award, Uganda in 2019, and he founded RWAndA-n-Art Magazine in 2010.
Of his piece 'All On Her', Collin said: “I have always found the jerry can to be such a symbolic item in African homes. In almost every community it’s used for trading consumer commodities - most importantly it’s commonly used for fetching and storing water. I have grown to believe that a home without a jerry can is unliveable.
“This artwork speaks to the symbolism of a jerry can versus its importance in accessing clean water and observing sanitation. It is dedicated to all the women and children, especially young girls – who, on a daily basis, walk miles in search for clean water to sustain their families’ wellbeing.”
Saidou Dicko is a self-taught visual artist from Burkina Faso who lives in Paris.
He has won several awards and exhibited his work throughout the world such as at Dak’Art 2008, the 8th Biennial of contemporary African Art. In 2012, he co-founded the collective "Rendez-Vous of Artists".
Through the sale of his artwork, Saïdou financially supports an association in north Burkina Faso which keeps a community borehole working and has set up a community kitchen garden.
Poulomi Basu is an Indian transmedia artist, photographer, activist and author. Her work as a human rights activist explores the taboos surrounding menstruation and violence against women.
Poulomi said: "I chose to recreate Lee Miller’s famous self portrait in Hitler’s bathtub.
"My response is a reflection on how many of us, particularly when living in the west, we take the bathroom and easy access to water for granted. It is a commonality that unites us all. Even those we consider despotic, have easy access to such sanitation, whilst this is a right denied for many women and girls around the world, particularly those in the global south.
"Filtered through my own experiences, individually and through my artistic practice, I made subtle updates to the image. As you glimpse at the water in the bath tub, we see that it is blood red: a symbol of menstruation."
Cristina de Middel
Cristina de Middel is a Spanish documentary photographer based in both Mexico and Brazil. Cristina creates fictional scenes based on reality in her photographs.
Cristina said: “I wanted to use the beautiful light of the afternoon and work with one of my neighbours, Gaetano.
“I wanted to reflect on the fact that the abundance of water does not necessarily mean a good quality of water. I live in a small town in the state of Bahía, Brazil and we’re in the middle of the rainy season. Here water is a utility but also an important part of the landscape and the culture. There is water everywhere but it rains with such intensity that the water system collapses often and there is no water at home.
"Gaetano is a young boy who has the same problems as we all have here: water supply is inconsistent, it depends on the season and the basic infrastructure of the town.”
Giya is a British-South African documentary photographer based in the UK and the Netherlands. Her work focuses on identity, race and colonialism and the systems of power. She has exhibited around the world, and was selected as one of the '31 women to watch out for' by the British Journal of Photography, where her work has been published.
Of her piece, Constant Ritual she says: “The piece is inspired by the NHS instructions for handwashing during the current coronavirus pandemic and how that affects those without access to clean running water.
"By using our largest connecting water source - the sea - I hope to point out that as a global community we are all responsible for all of our fellow humans to ensure that everyone has the same basic right of access to clean water and the chance to protect themselves from the virus in the most basic way possible.
"I also thought about the sanctity of water in respect to ritual and cleansing within ancestral and indigenous practices, whether it be the cleaning of a newborn child or cleansing to wash away spirits. I combined these ideas and decided to illustrate these through a piece performing this new constant ritual in the sea.”
Serge Attukwei Clottey
Serge Attukwei Clottey is a Ghanaian artist who works within installation, performance, photography and sculpture, using found and recycled everyday objects. He has exhibited all over the world and his work has been featured in numerous prestigious publications.
He produced an image using the yellow plastic jerry cans people use for collecting water in Ghana, where 1 in 5 lack access to clean water. He is passionate about exploring attitudes to climate change in Ghana. He explained:
“In Ghana, the streets are filled with children carrying yellow buckets on their heads, on their way to a fountain. Every day I would see women and children pour in by the hundreds.
“I want this photo to demand social justice by exposing environmental problems in today’s society. It inspires the human spirit by calling people to action. My work combines activism and art, addressing society’s cultural, political, and economic inadequacies on climate change. The art implicates both the individual and the government. It urges people into action and attempts to rectify the current state of ignorance.
“Every second across the world, someone leaves a tap running, takes a long shower, or pours out some unwanted water. Every day in Ghana – the streets are filled with children carrying yellow buckets."
Henry J Kamara
Henry J Kamara is a British-Sierra Leonean visual storyteller. He explores the complexities of identity, race and class through his work, and has recently focused his lens on his experience of diaspora and reconnecting with his motherland, Sierra Leone. His works have been featured in numerous publications such as the Guardian, Observer and Aesthetica Magazine.
"In the past, Bonthe Island in Sierra Leone was a thriving trade hub and economic centre. In the 80s palm products and seafood became major industries. During the two world wars the French and English navy used the town as a base.
"This Victorian water pump is a reminder that the right to clean water and decent toilets is a luxury afforded only to those who are fortunate. The time to change this is now.
Above all, it is the world leaders who must accept responsibility. It was just 10 years ago that the right to clean water and toilets was declared by the UN as inalienable human right. Therefore, they must do more to ensure that the infrastructure that will enable sovereignty and access to water is available to everyone, not just some."
A staggering 3 billion people do not have the facilities to wash their hands with soap and water at home, the first line of defence against diseases like COVID-19. WaterAid is calling on world leaders to double their investment in clean water and good hygiene in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.