Water: a most precious commodity and a basic right

Thousands die every day from the consequences of drinking from tainted sources. We can make a differ

It’s easy to take water for granted. While the current drought in parts of the UK means that some of us are facing temporary restrictions such as hosepipe bans, we all know that when we turn on the tap there will be enough safe, clean water for our daily needs, from drinking to washing and cooking.

In parts of Africa and Asia, the value of water is felt much more deeply.  “Water is everything. Once you have water you have hope for tomorrow,” explains Alice Nirere from Ntarama village, Rwanda, where WaterAid installed a new rainwater harvesting system last year. “Things have changed a lot now we have water near to us; we don’t have to toil anymore.”

At WaterAid, our vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Over the past seven years, the New Statesman and its subscribers have been helping us step closer to this goal, donating over £25,000 to our work to improve access to these vital services in communities across Africa and Asia. That’s over 1,600 lives changed; from children who are healthy and no longer missing school to women and girls who are able to spend time with their families, get an education or earn a living.

The transformation brought by safe water and toilets is clear to see. In the villages of Ambolotarakely and Manjaka in rural Madagascar, WaterAid is working in partnership with communities to install water points, build latrines and school toilets and set up handwashing facilities. As a result, the villages have seen a huge reduction in diseases related to water and sanitation, and school attendance has shot up. As well as providing clean, safe water to drink, the run-off water from the village water points is used to grow vegetables to sell – an important source of income in an area ranked among the poorest in Madagascar.

Sadly, this example is far from the reality for millions of people in the world’s poorest communities. In fact, a staggering 783 million people are currently living without this most basic necessity. For these communities, finding water is a daily struggle, with women and children spending hours each day walking to collect water from unsafe sources such as streams, ponds and unprotected wells. Along with poor sanitation, this dirty water causes diseases that kill 4,000 children every day.

This can be prevented. Having clean water and toilets available close to home not only saves lives but transforms them too.  It helps communities take the first, essential steps out of poverty. Free from the burdens of illness and hours spent fetching water, time can be spent in more productive ways such as working, taking care of children or going to school. The impact is so huge that for every £1 spent on water and sanitation, £8 is returned in increased productivity (UNDP Human Development Report, 2006).

On a global scale, progress is being made, and earlier this year the UN reported that the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to halve the proportion of people worldwide living without safe water had been met. While this is undoubtedly a significant achievement, a renewed effort to reach the nearly 800 million still without access to clean water, and the 2.5 billion who have nowhere safe to go to the toilet, remains critical. With current slow rates of progress making the target for providing sanitation one of the most off track MDGs, world leaders need to take action now to tackle this crisis.

The numbers may sound daunting, but a world where everyone has access to safe water to drink is achievable, and could be only a generation away. Universal access to both clean water and adequate sanitation could save the lives of 2.5 million people who die every year from diseases caused by dirty water and the lack of toilets. With the help from supporters such as the New Statesman, we will keep working to make this a reality.

Barbara Frost is Chief Executive of Water Aid

Find out more about WaterAid’s work at www.wateraid.org

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.