The Importance of Water & Bicycles

Water and bicycles are intrinsically linked. The average Tour de France rider drinks up to 10 liters of water per day—and 210 liters across all 21 stages. But, for many around the world, the relationship between bikes and water is the exact opposite.

While an elite athlete hydrates to ride, people in developing countries ride— more often, walk— to hydrate. With water problems prevalent around the world, numerous countries are turning to bicycles as a more efficient means of transporting clean water.

The problem of limited access to safe water

Women Walking with Water Cans on Their Heads
From Colombia to Zimbabwe, all of World Bicycle Relief’s program countries face limited access to clean water. Around the world, it is common for water to be collected from wells (also called boreholes). Globally, 1 of 10 people (663 million total) are without clean water.

In Zambia alone, 5 million households rely on boreholes for safe water. As shown in this WHO/UNICEF infographic, women and children are typically responsible for collecting water. An average walk to a well is 10 kilometers roundtrip. By foot, the hike to carry four gallons of water—which usually lasts a family one or two days—can take eight hours.

Time spent walking to and from water wells impacts the productivity of women and children. Combined, women and children spend 200 million hours collecting water every day globally.

Tamara Fetching Water from Nearby Pond

Zambian student, Tamara, fetches water from a nearby pond daily.

Schoolchildren in Zambia face the decision of whether to prioritize their education over basic needs for survival. If limited to walking, a child juggles going to school, walking several hours to collect water and finishing schoolwork. As a result, children may end up jeopardizing their safety by walking long hours alone after sunset. Alternatively, they could prioritize collecting clean water and skip days of school.

A similar dilemma exists for women. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women represent 40% of the labor workforce but spend 40 billion hours every year collecting water. Without time to put toward a paying job, there is a missed opportunity to bring in additional money to support the family.

Access to Treatment for Waterborne & Water-Related Diseases

Mother and child at a health clinic

Although time-consuming, the treks to collect water are life-saving in Zambia. Clean water keeps communities healthy by increasing hygiene and reducing risk of waterborne diseases. Contamination, often caused by sewage runoff, is a prevalent concern in areas lacking sanitized wells, particularly for children. In Zambia, nearly 2,000 children under five die each year due to diarrheal diseases as a result of contaminated water sources.

Robert, a Malaria healthcare provider

Robert, one of the healthcare providers in World Bicycle Relief’s program to reduce Malaria in Zambia. Photo: Laura Newman/PATH.

Another high-risk, waterborne disease is Malaria. The deadly disease affects Sub-Saharan Africa more than anywhere else in the world. Of the 212 million total malaria cases in 2015, 90% of those occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mosquitoes, including those that transmit malaria, lay their eggs in stagnant water. Once hatched, the insects pose a serious health threat to nearby communities.

In collaboration with the Malaria Control and Elimination Partnership in Africa (MACEPA), World Bicycle Relief launched a program that put Buffalo Bicycles in the hands of 1,500 healthcare providers. The bicycles are bright orange to stand out, and save three hours of time for every 10 miles traveled. Equipped with mosquito nets as well as diagnostic and treatment kits, the healthcare providers are revered by their communities. “When [people] see the bikes, they know we have come to fight malaria,” says Robert, one of the healthcare providers in the program. “People are happy to see us.”

What happens when you replace walking with biking?

Ethel & friend on bicycle to school

The trip to the water well is a necessary one. However, it does not need to sacrifice health, safety or education. Buffalo Bicycles facilitate access to water by offering a productive, sustainable alternative. These bicycles also give access to healthcare. Healthcare workers use Buffalo Bicycles to reach patients; treating and preventing diseases including waterborne illnesses. Compared to walking, riding is four times faster and allows a person to carry five times as much water per trip.

When children— especially girls — are able to save time and effort by using bicycles for water collection, they are able to focus on their education. Instead of struggling to attain basic needs, children have the tools to thrive. Educating children sets off a ripple effect that empowers a community.

The impact of our Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Programs (BEEP) in Zambia is notable. Schools observed fewer dropouts, a 17% increase in academic performance and a 35% reduction in missing 10+ days of school.

Woman on Bike with Water, Smiling

Noreen carrying water on her bicycle

Ethel’s commute to school went from two hours across hilly terrain to 45 minutes. Inspired by the difference it has made in her life, Ethel also transports classmates to school using her Buffalo Bicycle!

Communities prosper when children focus on learning and are able to pursue their dreams. Girls and boys grow up to become healthcare providers, business owners, and teachers. The result is a stronger workforce and thriving local economy.

“I used to dream about owning a bicycle from childhood, and this dream became a reality,” shares Monica, a student in Zambia’s Chongwe District, who rides her Buffalo Bicycle everyday. “I also feel my dream of becoming a nurse will be a reality.”

Take the World Bicycle Relief Water Challenge

Water is what connects us all. It’s up to us to empower each other to consume water smarter. Challenge yourself to reduce water consumption on and off the bike by taking the WBR Water Challenge. Bring a friend along for the ride and connect with a larger community by turning your challenge into a World Bicycle Relief fundraiser!

Here are some ideas to help get you started:

Girl pouring water into bucket

    1. Start a morning riding group, as hot riding weather requires extra hydration. Use Strava to organize rides and connect with other riders in your area!
    2. Are you a casual cyclist? Commute by bike or clean transport when possible. It takes 2.5 to 3 gallons of water to refine 1 gallon of gas. Figure out what your commute’s carbon impact is here. How much can you lower it in one month? Challenge your co-workers to try the same, and see who gets the most days of clean commuting!
    3. Share a weekly vegetarian meal with friends or family. Meat and dairy requires significant amounts of water to produce. Here’s how many gallons of water it takes to produce one pound of different meats: beef (1,799), pork (576), and chicken (468 gallons). A gallon of milk? 880 gallons. Challenge too easy? Step it up a notch by cooking primarily seasonal, regional vegetables. Compared to imports, local produce requires less fuel to transport food from farm to store.
    4. Recycle. It takes less water to manufacture with recycled material. Here’s a snapshot: recycled paper saves 60% of water used, recycled glass saves 50%, and recycled steel saves 40%. Can you fill more recycling bags than trash bags each week?

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