Water Life (2018) by Aida Muluneh

Photograph of Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh, an acclaimed contemporary visual artist who specializes in photography. Much of Muluneh’s work aims to reshape the world’s view of Africa and its people, calling attention to social problems like colonialism and the West’s cultural perception of Africa (from Muluneh, 2018).

  • Water Life is a twelve-piece photography series created by artist Aida Muluneh (image above). The photographs in Water Life were taken in the salt flats of the Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia, where rainfall is scarce and average temperatures are over 40°C (104°F). Water Life (images below) displays women in brightly colored fabrics and body paint with vibrant set pieces over a desolate desert landscape. Through her art, Muluneh communicates the strength and importance of women in society, and the impact of the Ethiopian water crisis on their health, sanitation, freedom, and education.
  • Aida Muluneh was born in Ethiopia but left as an infant and spent most of her adolescence in Canada. After completing college in the United States, she returned to Ethiopia where she works as an artist, photographer, and educator. Muluneh’s artwork focuses on shifting global perceptions of African people, politics, and cultures. Her art illustrates Africa’s rich cultural diversity and calls attention to social injustice, colonialism, and the West’s misrepresentation of African cultures.
  • Muluneh was compelled to create Water Life from her numerous experiences witnessing women in Ethiopia carrying water to their homes. Water Life raises awareness of insecure water access for people across Ethiopia. In rural Ethiopia, people do not have easy access to clean water.  Women travel on foot to bring heavy containers of water to their households. This is not only physically laborious, but it also takes a significant amount of time away from other activities, like education and employment.

Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian, 1974–present. The shackles of limitations, 2018. WaterAid and the H&M Foundation.

Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian, 1974–present. The sorrows we bear, 2018. WaterAid and the H&M Foundation.

How is this related to climate?

  • Ethiopia is facing a national water shortage, affecting mainly people in rural communities. According to a study by the organization Water.org, only 42% of Ethiopian citizens have access to clean water and less than five percent have access to sanitation services. Drought conditions are exacerbating water scarcity and inaccessibility in Ethiopia.
  • Since the early 21st century, Ethiopia has been affected by extreme drought. Between 2019 and 2022, eastern Ethiopia experienced three weak rainy seasons, providing little relief from the region’s water shortage. The drought conditions have dried freshwater sources like ponds, lakes, streams, and man-made reservoirs. Water sources that remain can be contaminated with parasites and waste. The drought is affecting domestic households, local agriculture, and livestock.
    • According to Mustafa Mohammed Omar, the President of the Somali Region of Ethiopia, the drought is the country’s worst drought in forty years. Many thousands of Ethiopian residents have been displaced or lost their jobs due to the drought. Additionally, over one million livestock have died from lack of water and disease.

Photograph of a dead cow that perished from starvation and dehydration in the Somali region of Ethiopia, which has been hit by a devastating drought (from United Nations News, 2022).

  • Climate change has amplified drought conditions in Eastern Africa by causing irregular precipitation patterns and rising temperatures. Inconsistent rain and hot air temperatures have resulted in heightened dry spells in between sporadic heavy rain events accompanied by flooding and land degradation. 
    • In August 2021, the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, was flooded by an intense rainfall event (image below). The rainstorms, which occurred over a period of a couple of days, produced 40% of the country’s annual precipitation.

Photograph of the aftermath of flash flooding in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, after heavy rain events in 2021. The disaster inundated roads, destroyed infrastructure, and claimed seven lives (Davies, 2021).

Further exploration

  • To improve water access in Ethiopia and other African nations, American entrepreneurs Anaa Jibicho and Lamah Bility have donated half the earnings from their sustainable water bottle company Didomi. Jibicho and Bility were born in Ethiopia and Liberia respectively, and experienced the water crisis first-hand. Both moved to the United States as children. Didomi is partnered with WaterIsLife, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving water and sanitation access.

References and additional resources