Photographer focuses lens on water shortage

Photographs have a way of immediately connecting a person with the object in the photograph. Photographer and public health researcher Ariane Kirtley wants that connection to result in water for the poorest people in the poorest country of the world. Through her powerful photographs of the West African people of Azawak in Niger, she is keeping a promise that she made to tell the world about their plight. Kirtley is founder of Amman Imman, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing clean, available and sustainable sources of water for the Azawak people. Her photography can be seen at

by L.J. ANDERSON Daily News Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007 33


Q: When did you start to view photography as a way to improve people’s health? A: I wanted to return to Africa with skills to help the people whom I considered my family. Iobtained a master’s (degree) in public health from Yale in 2004, and then returned to Africa as a Fulbright Scholar to conduct a public health study among different ethnic groups in rural Niger. Having grown up with parents who used photography to tell stories of people and cultures, it was natural for me to do the same. I quickly realized it would be an essential tool for me to share the lives, as well as both the beauty Q: How important was photography and plight, of the people I wanted in your household growing up? to help. A: Photography was extremely important and determined how I Q: Why were you drawn to was raised and my future life choices. the people of Azawak, and what My parents were freelance were the conditions there? photojournalists for National A: In September of 2005, I traveled Geographic, Geo, Time and other to Niger’s most remote magazines. Their expertise was West region, Azawak, a pastoral region Africa, and I crossed the Sahara with 500,000 people and covering Desert of Niger for the first time when 80,000 square miles (approximately I was 6 months old in a basket tied to the size of Florida). I had never the back seat of been to an area with so few the family Land Cruiser. Until I resources, where one out of every turned 10, my home was in North and two children dies before the age of West Africa as I accompanied my 5, where people have to ride a parents everywhere they worked. I donkey for two days to get health grew up among the nomadic Bozo care, and where people are dying fishermen in Mali, the Ibadite of dehydration because water is Muslims not available. At the same time, I of central Algeria, the animist Guere encountered among the most “ panther men ” of western Ivory generous people I have ever met. Coast, and the Inadan Tuareg artisans I went to the region to collect of Niger’s Aïr public health data. I went into 700 Mountains in the Sahara Desert. households, and every single person

I met begged me, “Please help bring us water to stop our children from dying. ” As a researcher, it wasn’t my role — but I promised to serve as witness to their water plight to the rest of the world. I tried to garner help from large international development organizations, and learned that they were not going to provide it anytime soon. In February of 2006, I founded Amman Imman (which translates into Water is Life in the local language, Tamachek) to build permanent and sustainable water sources — called boreholes — especially adapted to the difficult hydrogeological conditions in the area. Q: What has changed in the region since your involvement? A: This year Amman Imman accomplished its first success story by building its first borehole, a tube or narrow shaft that is drilled deep into the ground. Our borehole was drilled 200 meters (600 feet) deep and feeds water into a water tank that contains 20,000 liters (5,300 gallons) of water. Not only are the people healthier because they have more water to drink, cook and wash with, but the water is clean and therefore not causing additional sickness. The livestock herds have increased and are providing more milk. They have begun growing sustenance crops, and have time for smallscale, revenue-generating activities. The communities have also built a school for themselves.

Q: What would you like people to know about the need in that area of the world? A: This is one of the few regions where people are literally dying of thirst because water is inaccessible — unlike most places where mortality is caused by lack of access to clean water. Despite their dire living conditions, no large-scale organization or government agencies work to improve their lives. These people have less than 1.5 gallons of water per day/per person to drink, cook with, bathe with and wash their clothes with. The typical American uses an average of 70 gallons of water per day and the World Health Organization states that, at the very minimum, an individual must have at least 6.5 gallons of water just to survive. The survival of the people of the Azawak depends on how much rain falls. This year, the rainy season (which is only 15 minutes to an hour of rain maximum per day) only lasted one month and a half. The people of the Azawak have a saying, “Amman Imman, Arr Issudarr ” which means Water is Life, Milk is Hope. Before the children of the Azawak can have hope, they need water. Before they can have hope, they need life. LJ Anderson writes on health matters every Tuesday. She can be reached at