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Sierra Leone's Water Of Life — And Death

Posted: January 24, 2013

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Photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz's project documents the causes and effects of Sierra Leone's recent cholera outbreak. His images capture the immense scope and scale of the crisis — depicting the role of water, an essential element of life that cannot always be trusted.

Ibrahim, 12, burns for copper in the Ferry Junction dumpsite that receives a large portion of Freetown's waste.

Ibrahim, 12, burns for copper in the Ferry Junction dumpsite that receives a large portion of Freetown's waste.

Momoh, 33, collects plastic bottles from the polluted beach of Kroo Bay, a poor slum settlement of 5,500 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2012, Sierra Leone suffered through one of its worst outbreaks of cholera, a waterborne disease that infects the intestine and is transmitted through contaminated water and food. It ravaged 12 of the country's 13 districts.

Momoh, 33, collects plastic bottles from the polluted beach of Kroo Bay, a poor slum settlement of 5,500 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2012, Sierra Leone suffered through one of its worst outbreaks of cholera, a waterborne disease that infects the intestine and is transmitted through contaminated water and food. It ravaged 12 of the country's 13 districts.

The view of Freetown from Leicester Peak. Last year's cholera outbreak struck hardest in the slums, where crowded and unsanitary living conditions and unsafe water sources allowed the disease to spread rapidly.

The view of Freetown from Leicester Peak. Last year's cholera outbreak struck hardest in the slums, where crowded and unsanitary living conditions and unsafe water sources allowed the disease to spread rapidly.

Children from Holy Trinity Primary School in east Freetown watch an educational video from the Sierra Leone Red Cross Mobile Cinema Unit, which toured the country in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Children from Holy Trinity Primary School in east Freetown watch an educational video from the Sierra Leone Red Cross Mobile Cinema Unit, which toured the country in the aftermath of the outbreak.

A public latrine in Freetown's Grey Bush slum where cholera struck. Open defecation is common while public bathrooms are generally in poor order and costly to use.

A public latrine in Freetown's Grey Bush slum where cholera struck. Open defecation is common while public bathrooms are generally in poor order and costly to use.

Fishermen drag in a net at Lumley Beach in west Freetown. The polluted waters often bring small amounts of fish, tangled together with bottles and other trash.

Fishermen drag in a net at Lumley Beach in west Freetown. The polluted waters often bring small amounts of fish, tangled together with bottles and other trash.

A man collects water from the polluted river running through Grey Bush. The sources for water are limited, and while international aid organizations have created temporary solutions in standpipes, the issue of sanitation and water has yet to be resolved.

A man collects water from the polluted river running through Grey Bush. The sources for water are limited, and while international aid organizations have created temporary solutions in standpipes, the issue of sanitation and water has yet to be resolved.

The Borborcombough Water Site in the Kroo Bay slum, one of two that service a population of 5,500 people. The Western Area — where Freetown is located — accounted for half of all cholera cases during the outbreak.

The Borborcombough Water Site in the Kroo Bay slum, one of two that service a population of 5,500 people. The Western Area — where Freetown is located — accounted for half of all cholera cases during the outbreak.

A schoolgirl collects buckets of water for more than 200 other girls at a school in east Freetown. The water is used for drinking, washing and the latrines.

A schoolgirl collects buckets of water for more than 200 other girls at a school in east Freetown. The water is used for drinking, washing and the latrines.

The Guma Dam services the 2 million people of Freetown, a city built to support 600,000. The main supplier of water to the capital is the Guma Valley Water Co. But the company's pipes are crumbling and out-of-date and, despite a staggering 3 meters of annual rainfall, there is not enough water to go through the system.

The Guma Dam services the 2 million people of Freetown, a city built to support 600,000. The main supplier of water to the capital is the Guma Valley Water Co. But the company's pipes are crumbling and out-of-date and, despite a staggering 3 meters of annual rainfall, there is not enough water to go through the system.

The dumpsites used by government trucks and private companies reside within the city. The Kingtom dumpsite sits in Grey Bush, a community of 12,000. It receives a large portion of Freetown's garbage, including human waste. Farmers use the garbage to grow vegetables.

The dumpsites used by government trucks and private companies reside within the city. The Kingtom dumpsite sits in Grey Bush, a community of 12,000. It receives a large portion of Freetown's garbage, including human waste. Farmers use the garbage to grow vegetables.

Young men stand in a wasteland burning garbage for copper. In the rainy season, which stretches from May to December, shanty houses at the base are flooded with water and refuse. In the dry season, stagnant pools of water build up and are used as alternative sources of water to wash.

Young men stand in a wasteland burning garbage for copper. In the rainy season, which stretches from May to December, shanty houses at the base are flooded with water and refuse. In the dry season, stagnant pools of water build up and are used as alternative sources of water to wash.

The main dumpsite in the center of Freetown where garbage and human waste has accumulated into massive caverns. While the cholera outbreak receded by the end of 2012, the danger for another outbreak remains. The core of the problem lies in an infrastructure unable to cope with a large urban population.

The main dumpsite in the center of Freetown where garbage and human waste has accumulated into massive caverns. While the cholera outbreak receded by the end of 2012, the danger for another outbreak remains. The core of the problem lies in an infrastructure unable to cope with a large urban population.

A tourist from New Delhi floats in the clean water of River Number 2, a beach 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) south of Freetown that is typically populated by tourists and aid workers.

A tourist from New Delhi floats in the clean water of River Number 2, a beach 16 kilometers (about 10 miles) south of Freetown that is typically populated by tourists and aid workers.

Momoh, 33, collects plastic bottles from the polluted beach of Kroo Bay, a poor slum settlement of 5,500 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2012, Sierra Leone suffered through one of its worst outbreaks of cholera, a waterborne disease that infects the intestine and is transmitted through contaminated water and food. The disease has ravaged 12 of the country's 13 districts.

Momoh, 33, collects plastic bottles from the polluted beach of Kroo Bay, a poor slum settlement of 5,500 people in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2012, Sierra Leone suffered through one of its worst outbreaks of cholera, a waterborne disease that infects the intestine and is transmitted through contaminated water and food. The disease has ravaged 12 of the country's 13 districts.

Traditionally, water symbolizes life and renewal, but in Sierra Leone it is also a vehicle for epidemic and death — the focus of photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz's project "Water Is Gold," which documents the causes and effects of the country's recent cholera outbreak.

Last year, Sierra Leone experienced the worst cholera outbreak in its history, Abdulaziz writes for the Pulitzer Center, which funded his trip. There were 20,736 cases of cholera with 280 deaths since the beginning of 2012, he adds.

Abdulaziz spent most of his time in and around Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, which, he writes, was "built to support less than half the current population of 2 million." The slums are overcrowded, unsanitary and sprawling — the perfect breeding ground for the disease.

"I met a family of 86 that occupies a 10-room flat with no bathroom," he writes. "Open defecation is common while public bathrooms are generally in poor order and are costly to use."

Municipal dumpsites are right in the city. People make their living sorting through trash (which includes human waste), scavenging for copper, or burning it. Imagine what happens to those sites during the rainy season when the city floods. Abdulaziz's images capture the immense scope and scale of the crisis — depicting the role of water, an essential element of life that cannot always be trusted.

It's a grim situation with no clear solution, though Abdulaziz hopes his images might play a role: "My overall goal with this project is to use photography to engage viewers to question our relationship with water and ... [its] importance to our future."

Learn more on the Pulitzer Center's website.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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