Improving access to water is one of the most important goals of development programmes in rural Africa. In the part of Ethiopia where this research was done, many women spend three hours every day walking to fetch water, which they carry home in clay pots. In those villages where tapped water has been supplied, the time spent getting water has gone down to about 15 minutes. Programmes that achieve such a result are generally hailed as a success but it is unusual for their wider impact on the population to be studied.
The research involved nearly 2000 households in both villages with and without access to improved water supply. The death rate of children in the villages where tapped water had been introduced was found to be much lower than it was in the other villages. However, the birth rate was much higher in the villages with tapped water than it was in the other villages.
It has been argued that when development improves living conditions and health, there will be a reduction in birth rate. This has happened in many countries but, in rural Africa, birth rates remain high and the population is growing rapidly. Ethiopia is an example; the rising population and the slow growth in the economy have led to repeated humanitarian crises.
A further finding in the study was surprising: the nutritional status of children fell in the villages which had taps, even though their risk of dying was lower.
Gibson and Mace say their study is the first to show a link between the introduction of a 'technological intervention' and an increase in birt
Contact: Andrew Hyde
Public Library of Science