The IoS Christmas Appeal: Solar power frees thousands from risks of search for water

Simple pumps have saved villagers from a dangerous job

Imagine that, instead of turning a tap, you had to walk more than 10 miles every time you wanted water. And that you then had to descend into a crumbling pit dug in a dry riverbed, to scoop out dirty water with your bare hands, knowing that it could make you and your family sick.

In the drought-stricken areas of Africa where the charity Practical Action works, this is the fate of thousands of village women. They are also at risk of rape, attack by wild animals – or, in Sudan's Darfur region, where Practical Action was one of only a handful of aid organisations to remain throughout the conflict, death at the hands of marauding militias.

Even in Kenya, normally considered more stable, lingering drought in the northern Turkana region has led to violent clashes over water sources. No wonder that Eshe Emase, of Namoruputh village, said: "Every time I am forced to fetch water, my legs shake with fear." But women like her, whose men are often away seeking work, have no choice. If they bring back no water, their families face not only thirst but eventual starvation, because their animals would die.

Practical Action, which is being supported by The Independent on Sunday's Christmas Appeal, exists to find appropriate technological solutions for problems such as water supply. The answer for Namoruputh was brilliant in its simplicity: if climate change has left Turkana with too much sun and not enough water, use solar power to pump water up from underground reserves. The village now has a solar pump which brings up to 10,000 litres of water an hour from a 100m deep well, serving more than 10,500 people.

"We used to have regular cases of water-related disease, including diarrhoea and typhoid, but that's a thing of the past," said Mark Amojong, the village chief. Ms Emase and her children no longer have to spend two hours a day collecting water, carrying containers weighing 20kg over long distances. The children now go to school, and their mother can grow more food, such as cow peas, kale and pumpkins, for the family. "Soon I won't be going to the market to buy vegetables," she said. "I will be going to sell my own instead."

While the initial investment in solar pumping, at nearly £7,700, is relatively expensive, that is only 74p a person. Practical Action makes sure that local people are trained to keep the system running for as long as 25 years.

Many of the charity's techniques are as cheap as they are ingenious. In Sudan, where fresh food quickly perishes in the blinding heat, the charity has devised an earthenware "fridge" called a zeer pot, which can keep 12kg of produce fresh for up to three weeks. A small clay pot is fitted inside a larger one, with a layer of wet sand in between. Fruit and vegetables are stored in the inner pot, which is covered with a damp cloth and left in a very dry, ventilated place. As the moisture evaporates, the temperature in the inner container falls several degrees, preserving the contents. The improvement in diets is dramatic. The zeer pots cost just £12.50 to make.

No people are more vulnerable than those who have lost their land because of drought. Living in camps, dependent on food handouts, they are easy prey for armed groups. Yet with help from Practical Action, communities across Sudan have built dams to capture such rain as does fall, enabling thousands to stay on the land and improve their lives. Many can now eat three meals a day.

Lubna Mohammed Adam, who lost her husband in the Darfur conflict, helped carry blocks of stone to build a dam near her village of Abu Degaise. "Now there is water where there was none," she said. She can grow sorghum, watermelon and cucumber – some to eat, some to sell. One of her neighbours, Mohammed Yahya Mohammed, said people could previously grow crops for only four months of the year, and had to migrate to the capital, Khartoum, in the summer to look for work. Since the dam was built, the growing season had doubled to eight months, transforming the community.

In eastern Sudan, Mohammed Nor faced leaving the farm that had supported the family in the time of his father and grandfather, but another dam, built with Practical Action's help, saved their way of life. "For too long we felt forgotten," he said. "I was determined that my family wouldn't move, but we were struggling to find a way to survive. Now we are farming, growing crops to sell at market: we can rely on ourselves."

These people are testimony to the effectiveness of Practical Action's methods. Your donations to the IoS Christmas Appeal will enable the charity to deliver direct help where it is needed most.

What your money can buy

You could help transform poor families' lives. So please, give whatever you can to help lift more people out of poverty today.

£60 helps 80 people get clean water from a solar-powered pump.

£125 buys ploughs and tools for a community to irrigate their land.

£200 pays for zeer pots for 16 families.

£570 could purchase two sets of sluice gates for earth dams.