Tara Rava Zolnikov, an NDSU Graduate School Doctoral Dissertation Fellow of developmental science, has witnessed up close how water can bring families closer, enrich a person’s quality of life and bring newfound economic advantages for many in some remote villages in Kenya.
When the water flows, so do the opportunities.
“When you see the inequalities between the developed and the developing world, you can either turn and look the other way or help out,” said Zolnikov, a fifth-year doctoral student from Montana who came to NDSU after a stint at the Harvard School of Public Health. “I knew right away which one I was going to do.”
Zolnikov fell in love with Kenya last year while working with the Kenya Red Cross as a humanitarian research scientist. She observed and reported humanitarian issues during her first trip.
But Zolnikov, who earned master’s degrees in industrial hygiene and epidemiology, exposures and risk, wanted to learn more.
She decided to return to the Kenya Red Cross last June to assess the social effects of recently implemented water interventions in an isolated, sunny and semi-arid region of the country.
“This was an area in the middle of nowhere that had a little more than one rainfall a season,” Zolnikov said. “There were two extremely contaminated rivers from which people gathered water. It was a difficult situation for the people who lived there.”
The need for clean, accessible water was glaring, Zolnikov said. Some walked up to six hours a day in extreme heat to retrieve only about 25 liters of contaminated water. It was barely enough for a family to use for cooking and drinking for the day. Bathing was out of the question.
Zolnikov said her research showed drastic changes occurred almost immediately following the addition of the five clean water interventions throughout the region. A water intervention is a public health measure that addresses quality or quantity of water within a community. She conducted interviews of residents near four interventions in an area of roughly 7,000 people.
Family bonds were strengthened when mothers, who often made the long trips to retrieve the river water, had more time at home. Children went back to school with more energy and focus. People could bathe, cook and drink more water.
Animals became healthier with extra water infused into their diet and the local economy began to thrive with the sale of livestock, garden vegetables, small trees and bricks for building homes.
“I never heard a negative comment,” Zolnikov said. “This changed their lives only for the better. When you think of giving people water, you think of the health component, a basic necessity. But it does so much more.”
Zolnikov said she expects to return to Kenya in a post-doctoral position with the Kenya Red Cross.
She hopes next time to conduct research on the communities where the interventions didn’t have as much success to find ways to improve the outcome.
“I want to become more of a water-focused person in public health in the future,” Zolnikov said. “We really need to get people water. This research has given me a stronger purpose and focus in my career.”