Every morning for almost 20 years, Fazilat Usvalieva, a 56-year-old housekeeper from the village of Gulistan in Uzbekistan’s Fergana region, would take a jerrycan and walk five kilometres to the nearest well to collect water.
Ten litres of water for just half a day: to drink, cook and wash, as well as provide water for her livestock.
A former nurse, Fazilat is the only breadwinner for her family, relying on her modest retirement wage and occasional seasonal farming. She supports her unemployed daughter, daughter's husband and their three children. Fazilat’s own husband is often abroad looking for job opportunities.
Fazilat's story is not uncommon here. With one out of five men now living and working abroad, many women here are sole breadwinners. The burden of carrying water merely adds to the myriad responsibilities they already juggle.
With its 4,500 inhabitants, Gulistan is just 20 kilometres from the region’s main city of Fergana, but worlds away in terms of infrastructure.
Like many other villages in Uzbekistan, it has a school, kindergarten and rural health clinic, but no access to safe drinking water. The infrastructure of the outdated water supply systems was in disrepair.
The lack of clean water affects more than household consumption. At the local school and kindergarten, no running water meant no bathrooms and nowhere for kids to drink or wash their hands. To prepare tea and lunch, teachers had to travel five kilometres to the nearest well every morning, taking their focus away from teaching.
“You can imagine how difficult it is,” one teacher noted. “After walking a couple of kilometres, you start to lose your physical strength and your knees start shaking while you try to balance holding two buckets.”
And how do you teach proper hygiene?
“Imagine instructing kids to wash their hands several times a day and before eating when there is no water,” explains Shakhzoda Djalilova, the kindergarten director.
The clinic wasn’t any better off. Staff also had to travel to wells, and unsafe water means high infection rates among patients.
Over the last 20 years, the municipality has delivered water to residents, schools and the clinic. But the population has almost doubled since 1998, increasing demand for water and a permanent and sustainable solution for accessing it.
Because of its geographical location, Uzbekistan receives 85% of water from neighboring upstream countries, the remainder from small Uzbek water sources. In a country rapidly expanding in both population and economic development, improving the system is of paramount importance.
The Government of Uzbekistan has recently adopted a development strategy that aims to enhance the living standard of millions. That effort is creating additional impetus for solving problems like Gulistan’s water crisis. In fact, the village is now a pilot for providing 100 percent municipal coverage, with local inhabitants in the driving seat.
Villagers joined the planning, and many helped construct the brand new potable water network. A newly established local water council has been trained to maintain the system.
“For many years, people kept hoping that one day, water would arrive,” says Abdukhalim Ismoilov, president of the group. “When we started the initial renovation plans, we were not expecting the local community to organize and help us. It took us only half a year to finish construction and fully renovate the water system and water tower.”
For the health clinic and school, the results are impressive. There has been a rapid decrease in infections among patients. The number of children attending kindergarten increased from 165 to 200, with dozens coming from neighbouring villages without water.
“I see our kids smile,” says Shakzoda. “The next step is to teach them how to conserve the precious water.”
Filling up a glass of water from her tap, Fazilat recalls the past as she watches her three grandchildren play.
“What a hard task that was. During the winter, especially when it was dark, I sometimes asked my grandchildren to accompany me, interrupting their homework. Even more difficult was the realization that my grandchildren would also share my “water carrying” destiny, which I inherited from my mother. Now, that’s not a worry anymore.”
Every evening after washing dishes and helping with her grandchildren’s homework, Fazilat reads her favourite book. She never had time or energy for reading, but now can enjoy it.
Neither she, nor anyone in Gulistan, has to carry water anymore.
The successful work in Gulistan is part of a larger initiative funded by the European Union and carried out by UNDP to help Uzbekistan manage water resources in the country’s rural areas by working closely with water users and farm associations and increasing public awareness on rational water use.