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Nigera’s stunted children: How carrying heavy water containers affects children’s growth

Today is World Water Day. With access to water in certain communities limited, Daily Trust looks at the life of children who have to travel…

Today is World Water Day. With access to water in certain communities limited, Daily Trust looks at the life of children who have to travel long distances to fetch water in containers that weigh as much their body, and the implications of this on their health.

Abdulkareem 13, weighs 31 kg. At different times, daily, he goes to fetch water for the family’s use, carrying a 20-litre bucket. When filled to the level he feels comfortable carrying, it weighs 15kg.

For the youngster who lives in an uncompleted building in with his father, stepmother and three siblings at Dawaki Extension of the Federal Capital Territory, he said, “The thing I want the most is to live in a house with running water.”

“I am tired of the headache and tiredness I feel fetching water. I know I cannot go to school, but I don’t want to spend every day fetching water,” he said.

Kilometres away, in the outskirts of the Abuja metropolis, the story is hardly different for the Mohammed siblings.

Saratu Mohammed, nine, is a resident of Paikon Kore, a community of about 10, 000 inhabitants in Gwagwalada Area Council of the Federal capital Territory. She, along with her brothers, Ibrahim, seven, and Kabiru, 11, go to River Eku to fetch water for their family’s use.

The strain of the 25-litre repurposed groundnut oil jerrican of water is visible on his neck as Kabiru drags himself up the steep bank of the river as he heads back home. He supports the weight of the container which is about three quarters full, with his hand, while beckoning on the other two to join him.

On school days, it is a chore they carry out from 6.30am for at least 30 minutes before preparing for school. On weekends, they don’t make the trips as much because most women, including their mother, go to the river to do their washing.

This routine is scarcely different for a shy 13-year-old girl who was reluctant to share her name or that of her younger sister with our reporter as they emerged from River Eku, where they had gone to fetch water at 7.27am on a Wednesday. It was their third trip that morning.

While crossing the main road, she unwittingly provided an apt picture of the impacts of water scarcity on children. With the bowl full of water splashing all over her, a group of girls dressed in uniforms walked past in the opposite direction to school.

For another one hour 30 minutes while our reporter observed the traffic around River Eku and interacted with community members, she returned twice to fetch water with her sister, carrying the same black 20-litre bowl.

Although about three-quarters of the earth is water and there are floods every now and again, across the FCT and in other parts of the country, it is very common to see children slugging these weights routinely. On their heads, in wheelbarrows or in their hands travelling long and short distances in search of this very common yet scarce natural resource.

In commemoration of the 2017 World Water Day, UNICEF warned that one in four children will live with water scarcity by 2040. The United Nations children’s agency anticipates that nearly 600 million children in the world will be living in areas of extremely high-water stress within the next two decades with the poorest and most disadvantaged, bearing the brunt.

A report by the agency estimates that 425 million children under the age of 18 continue to face water shortages with drought and conflicts fuelling severe water scarcity in parts of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

Speaking on the impact of these weights on children, Dr. Ahidjo Kawu, a consultant spine surgeon, at Spinecare Hospital, Abuja, said, it is not right to allow children carry loads on their head.

He said, “They are growing and most of their ligaments, joints, muscles and bones are undergoing tremendous adaptation due to growth hormones modulated by the effect of external forces.”

To show the severity children like Abdukareem, Saratu and her siblings are exposed to, Kawu broke down the effects on children of exceeding the maximal loads allowed on the head.

He said the human spine is balanced by two forces acting like a cantilever, in the frontal aspect with the middle of the head as reference. It is a compression force and behind this is the tension forces. Therefore, to maintain equilibrium, these forces must be balanced.

“A growing child,” Kawu said, “has a unique centre of gravity which is constantly changing due to growth and the effect of the load may temporarily alter this dynamic ball and on a projected scale may permanently alter this.”

On the defects Saratu and other children like her are exposed to, Kawu said they range from kyphosis scoliosis which is a condition where the spine is bent forward and sideways. “This deforms the person physically and bruises his or her self-esteem as I have seen with children I have treated.”

Although, frequent carrying of water containers may not necessarily cause stunting, which is the child not attaining the normal height for his age, Kawu said, such heavy loads also cause fracture of the spine.

With no less than 20 percent of patients in his care being children with back problems, the spine expert said, “Even if they [children] develop degenerative problems later in life in the spine, we won’t be able to tell the origin because we have not done any study in this part of the world  in this regard. It would be difficult to tell later in their lives, if any of these children developed a back or spine problem as a result of water fetching and carrying these heavy containers as frequently as they currently do.”

A current problem with making the right diagnosis with children who suffer back pain is that parents are not entirely honest about their children’s routine and the kind of chores or tasks they are subjected to.

“Most of the children I see with back problems are from disadvantaged backgrounds. When they come, I look out for tell-tale signs of abuse, especially from beatings by their parents and I sometimes see them. They also fight at the stream and pumps from where they fetch water and get injured in the process,” he said.

He added that, “Since we have not done any study to determine the maximum load allowable on the head of a child, it is safe to presume that carrying load and such weights on the head by growing children, should be discouraged at all levels.”

Another concern for the doctor is that these children are generally between the ages of nine and 14.

Kawu emphasised that these challenges could also emotionally scar these children in the near future if these issues are not addressed with the provision of portable water in homes and other alternatives to children carrying heavy water containers.

In a 2018 interview, Chief of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for UNICEF Nigeria, Zaid Jurji, said, less than 10% of Nigerian households have access to potable water.

Although Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goal strives to ensure water and sanitation for all by the year 2030, if resources do not match the plans to achieve this, chances of the situation changing are slim.

And as long as these statistics remain this low, it is not likely that Abdulkareem’s desires will come to pass anytime soon. It is also most unlikely that his back and shoulders, like those of Saratu and her siblings, will be getting the much-needed rest prescribed for them.

This story was done with support from Code for Africa

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