Water-bearer to a thirsty world

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a lifetime of journeying through the driest regions on earth, Fausto Bertoni has become something of an Italian Lawrence of Arabia. To his family back home in Florence he will always be the familiar, friendly "Nino."

But to villagers in the east African desert, he is the legendary "Nunu" -- that is, Nunu al Ansari, "defender of religion," an affectionate, half-humorous title for one who served Muslim tribesmen but did not abandon hiw own Christianity.

Indeed, wherever he is on the move, from the Sudan to Afghanistan, from djibouti to Pakistan, legend is in the making. For Nino Bertoni is a master at turning up that elusive treasure so desperately sought in many parts of the world: clean water.m

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This is why the United Nations Children's fund (UNICEF) scooped up his services a decade ago. It is why his services are even more in demand now, as the United Nations plans its November inauguration of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, a vast, worldwide effort to provide by 1990 a safe supply of water for the 2 billion people who do not have it now.

This wayfarer who speaks seven languages and hails originally from Genoa, the Italian town that produced Columbus, is a gentle, heavyset, totally unassuming, sad-eyed mechanical engineer who wears his thinning black hair slicked straight back. He speaks in deep throaty tones, could have been your uncle, and simply enjoys delighting people.

"Finding water for people -- it's in my blood," Nino reflected recently as we talked at UNICEF's New York headquarters, in between his journeys to the world's water trouble spots.

"It's a constant enjoyment to provide water for these unfortunate people who seem so completely helpless, but who can be easily helped with out technology," he explains, rolling his r's in a flow of Italian-accented English, gesturing gently with those giant, labor-worn hands.

"During my 18 years in the Sudan I enjoyed it virtually every day -- traveling with my staff, meeting the villagers, striking water, seeing the life of communities totally changed overnight by the water and the people so happy for having it. This happens everywhere."

Now a senior water-supply officer in UNICEF's corps of 120 experts in 40 countries, Nino lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps the cause of water. Water is not, to him, merely a common clear liquid that comes or goes with the turn of a tap. It has come to the forefront, he says, as a lifeline to the future of world development, a lifeline that is too easily unappreciated in lands where safe water is daily taken for granted.

For nearly three-quarters of mankind, just finding water demands enormous investments of time and labor. In developing countries, women invariably are given the task. Many spend six to eight hours a day in the search, carrying the water home in huge pots on their heads. In tanzania, women walk up to 15 miles daily in search of water.

And, according to Nino's UNICEF colleagues, hundreds of millions still draw from open wells or pools that are contaminated or insect-infested. In the foothills of Nepal, villagers drink, bathe, and launder their clothes in springs used by cattle. Even a religiously revered river like the Ganges in India serves a hodge-podge of bathers, launderers, and animals. Drinking water is taken from this river, which is also used to dispose of human and animal wastes. The World Health Organization links nearly 80 percent of the world's infant mortality to the poor quality of water.

"Yet ironically," Nino stresses, "for all the millions who suffer daily from unsafe water supplies, vast reserves of pure water are virtually everywhere to be harvested, usually as close as underfoot -- if only you can get to it."

Water specialist believe that although 90 percent of the world's fresh water is frozen in arctic regions, the remaining 10 percent could easily meet the needs of humankind, many times over. (Admittedly, reserves are not always easy to tap, and indiscriminate use can deplete a whole region's supply. Tuscon, Ariz., for example is in danger of overdrawing its once vast underground reservoirs.)

Only one-fifth of the fresh running water is on the earth's surface in streams, rivers, and lakes. the rest lurks underground, saturating the soil, seeping in vast quantities into giant cracks in the rocky mass of mountains, or gathering in basins on bedrock deep beneath the surface.

This is the world that excites Nino and his colleagues. They are the latest in a great line of water-seekers reaching back to biblical times and beyond.

The moderns still admire the engineering ingenuity of King Hezekiah's famous water tunnel near Jerusalem, which today continues to carry a stream of drinkable water along a tortuous path from the spring of Gihon to the pool of Siloam. The pool of Solomon near Bethlehem is also still in use.

In southern Iran, long conduits hand-dug centuries ago still transport mountain-locked water to valley villages miles away. More conduits are still being dug by a method passed down over the centuries: At great risk and using hand tools, diggers sinkshafts hundreds of feet vertically downward into sloping mountainsides. When a digger reaches the water table, he clangs two pot lids together. A co-worker in a similar shaft some distance away, tunnel's toward the sound. the process is then repeated to create a water tunnel.

But nowadays Nino and his teams of engineers have happier ways and means.

They cut through earth with drills ranging from the simplest hand-held tool that pushes down 100 feet into the ground and draws up water by a small hand pump on top, to the most sophisticated giant drills with "down-the-hole hammers" -- deep-drilling percussion hammers maneuvered and propelled hydraulically -- which cut through the hardest of rock and use compressed air to blow rock cuttings up to the surface.

Pipes have undergone a complete transformation. Once made of metal so heavy only a tractor or helicopter could move them, they now come in durable plastic light enough to be hand-carried by village laborers.

With such technologies and enough investment from the countries of the world, Nino and the Water decade planners believe that safe water and sanitary waste disposal could become more than a dream.

Few realists believe that there are enough technicians and back-up institutions to succeed by the target date of 1990. But planners of the decade -- the United Nations Development Program, the world Health Organization, UNICEF , the World Bank, and the International Labor Organization -- expect enormous progress particularly if governments give the problem a higher priority.

To reach villagers in need, Nino Bertoni's extraordinary career has taken him through some of the most barren climes of the Sudan, drilling for 18 years on behalf of the Sudanese government. He spent 2 1/2 years looking for water in Sicily. The next three years fund him in afghanistan drilling for water while russians drilled nearby for oil.

After drilling wells for airstrips being built in Afghanistan by the International Civil Aviation Organization, he joined UNICEF and was assigned to emergency water projects in that region for another four years. Now UNICEF's chief water supply officer for Pakistan, he also trouble-shoots wherever water emergencies are being tackled around the world.

Nuno al Ansari remebers when he and a team of 15 technicians arrived at Wadbanda, a village in northen Sudan where cattle-herding tribes live under the most difficult semi-desert conditions.

"Our party was met by a tall turbaned chief wearing a long collarless white robe with gold trim. He led us through a cluster of grass-roofed huts surrounded by a grass fence that corralled donkeys, goats, some horses and camels, to our quarters."

A sheep was there, tied to a tree near the hut -- a gift of welcome and food.

"What's so remarkable," Nino says with a warm grin, "is that water looms so important to these people that they celebrate everything you do at every stage. A sacrifice was immediately made on the spot where the well would to be drilled. We were treated by the chief and elders to a feast of roasted sheep."

For decades, villagers of Wadbanda had dug hundreds of open wells. But the rewards had been scanty. Digging down about 25-30 feet, they would reach water-saturated sand, hollow out a cavity, and let water seep into it. But once about four gallons was scooped out, the harvester would have to wait another hour before enough collected again to be retrieved. As tribesmen were forced to dig deeper and deeper into wetter and wetter sand, hazards increased dramatically. Many a villager was lost to cave-ins. And during the dry season, the entire village, though not nomadic, had been forced to pick up and migrate with their herds to the Nile River.

"This is why, when we struck water and got the wells going in several weeks, it was not just the leaders but the entire village came out in celebration," he continues.

"Dancing, drumming, singing went on all night. As we sat with Wadbanda's elders, a huge pot of food was placed before us. In traditional African fashion we reached in with our hands, drawing out pieces of meat and chicken in a rich mixture of the honey that is abundant in the region. You can imagine that with two new water wells, a pump house and storage tank in place, life would never be the same again. Water could be drawn up at 2,000 gallons per hour, 24 hours per day, and stored."

In the Sudan alone, with its 42 million cattle, many such villages have been spared long migrations to the Nile. UNICEF studies conclude that some Sudanese women had been making 40 trips each week to fetch water during the dry season. With nearly 300 wells dug so far in the region by UNICEF, an estimated 300,000 women-hours per day have been saved.

A series of new drilling projects supervised by Nino in Pakistan is saving village women from climbing 3,000 feet up into the mountains. Drilling horizontally into the mountains in 18 sites, water has been brought much closer to the villagers.

But installation of wells and pumps by UNICEF and other world relief organizations, Nino and his colleagues concede, has only begun to fill the enormous need.

In the Sudan UNICEF's 300 wells have brought safe water to only 150,000 people out of an estimated 8.6 million in need.

Estimates differ on the how much money it will take to bring safe water to the entire world by 1990. UN officials put the figure at $144 billion over the next ten years, most of it to be spent by governments of the countries involved, though substantial international funding will also be needed.

"That's not as much as it sounds," Dr. Abel Wolman, a water engineering specialist at Johns Hopkins University, says. "If you divide that by 10 years, that's $14 billion per year. And when you realize that is divided among the countries of the world and international organizations, it all comes to a very reasonable per capita expenditure for the 2 to 3 billion people in need."

World Bank analysts, however, think it would cost more like $30 billion per year between now and 1990.

Nevertheless, water specialists are encouraged by successes like that achieved in Bangladesh with the help of hundreds of thousands of wells dug by the UN and hand pumps supplied by local industries. Bangladesh may soon become the first developing country with a safe water supply for all its people.

American planners, for their part, are cheered by what has been achieved in Latin America where the United States channeled much of its aid for water development.

From 1960 to 1976, while population grew from 68 million to 196 million, the percentage of Latin Americans with access to safe water rose from 33 percent to 61 percent.

"This shows what a concentrated effort over a decade might be able to do," John McDonald of the US State Department, US coordinator for the Water Decade, says.

As the experts look at the world map and the future of water, their eyes fall on some key "choke points" where safe water is desperately needed.

Most of them are in South and Southeast Asia. But lack is severe in large parts of Africa (though smaller numbers of people are involved), particularly in the Horn of Africa and the western African Sahara belt, which has again been hit with massive droughts this year. Drought also besets parts of eastern Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, the Sudan, Malawi, Botswana, and portions of southern Africa.

In Europe, Spain faces serious problems of water shortage related to deforestation. Gone are the days when a 16th-century chronicler would write that Spanish forests were so abundant that a squirrel could climb a tree in Cadiz in the far south and makes its way to San Sebastian in the north without ever touching the ground.

In the Western hemisphere, the experts are particularly worried about devastating droughts in northwest Haiti, and water shortages in Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, and northeast Brazil.

Nino himself has just returned from a water-desperate site in Africa -- Djibouti.

This tiny country lies on the strategic Horn of Africa, at the very point where the Red Sea's shipping lanes open into the Indian Ocean. Djibouti's rocky , sandy terrain receives only 20 to 30 days of rain a year, and most of that is lost as it rushes over river beds out into the sea. There are no technicians to drill for water and few of the mechanics or spare parts needed to repair old drill equipment now scattered functionless around the country. On top of this, the country has been flooded with refugees from Somalia.

Traveling to a village bordering Ethiopia, Nino was begged by village elders to come to their rescue. They had been forced to ration water so strictly that even little children were getting only one drink per day. Adults were allowed one drink every second day -- all in a season when a 10 a.m. the temperature was rising to well over 100 degrees F.

"There's an absolutely dire emergency here a major proportions," Nino reflects. "The people were still surviving when I was there this summer, but the animals were dying off. More help will be needed with water drilling, although the funds of an organization like UNICEF, which directs its funds toward the welfare of children, had already been heavily stretched in other regions." (Since then, UNICEF has planned a $1.2 million water program to send drilling supplies and a master driller, making an initial commitment of $135,000 in emergency funds.)

The situation in Djibouti demonstrates just how politically sensitive water issues can be. It has received assistance from two politically at-odds Arab nations, Saudi Arabia and Libya.

But, tragically, both countries sent in equipment ill-designated for water drilling. The Saudi's contribution was a huge oil-drilling rig that is expensive to run and can only be moved with enormous tractors. Such rigs can drill down to 2,500 meters, but water in that region is normally reached at 100- 130 meters. Not to be outdone, Libya gave three more rigs that are four times the size of the Saudis'.

All this was going on while the real solution, according to Nino, lies in providing well water that can be drawn with hand pumps.

In the long run, the most difficult task for the Water Decade will be keeping the wells and pumps it provides in working order. Some experts warn that too many water projects have been undertaken without adequately training the people who are to use and maintain them.

In India alone, UNICEF estimated in 1978, 70 percent of the pumps in rural villages had become unusable for one reason or another.

"Even if there are good plans," Craig Hafner of the US Peace Corps says, "they won't work in the long run if the local people are not brought on board through education in maintaining the wells. This takes time. Malawi, for example, is a country where very successful water projects were carried out with extensive community involvement. But it took over 10 years to get it going properly. The question before the Water Decade is whether donor countries and agencies will undercut the whole idea by pressuring countries to install equipment without allowing time for community participation to develop."

Meanwhile, an elite corps of water engineers continues its ceaseless journeys across the planet to water the dry places of the earth. For Nino Bertoni, it is a career he wishes would never end, although in a matter of months he will reach UNICEF's mandatory retirement age.

But for the moment, the man known as Nunu is not wasting time thinking about that. He must catch a plane to help a country whose water supply was as totally devastated as its population -- Cambodia.

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