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In rural South Africa, 'hippos' carry the load

A new invention has made the difficult task of transporting water a little easier.

For as long as anyone here can remember, women and children from every Luphisi household have spent much of their day fetching water from a nearby stream. Balanced carefully on their heads for the sometimes mile-long walk back to the village, that water was carefully rationed back home. Without it, life could not go on.

These days, however, the sight of women balancing water buckets is rare in this isolated village nestled in South Africa's Malelane Mountains. Instead, villagers roll the water in their "hippos," a new invention that has made the heavy task of transporting water less onerous task.

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The large rolling water buckets – called "hippo rollers" by their inventors – do not provide a long-term solution to the developing world problem of access to clean water. But for thousands of women across South Africa who spend much of their day hauling the clear, cool liquid, it's a step in the right direction.

"The government is trying to do what they can to address the access-to-water problem, but it's a reality of life that there are going to be many, many communities that are going to battle with this problem for years to come," says Grant Gibbs, a founder of Imvubu ("hippo" in the local South African language of Zulu) Projects, which makes the rollers. "The hippo roller is designed as an intermediary solution."

Since the age of two, Betty Sgawuka has been carrying water. At first she carried only a few liters in a tiny container as she rambled behind her mother or older siblings. By the time she was fully grown, she carried 30 liters six or seven times a day for nearly a mile from the stream to her home. "No one here has running water in the house," she says. "So we had to be very strict with the water because it was so hard to get and so heavy."

With her hippo roller, donated five months ago by the nearby Bongani Mountain Lodge, where many local villagers work, Mrs. Sgawuka can now transport 90 liters in one trip. The invention has allowed her to be far more generous with the water's use. "It's so much easier to push it than to carry it on your head," she says. "All of us are happy to get them."

Although South Africa has made great strides toward providing clean water to people in rural areas, more than 7 million people are still without access. Millions must still carry the water great distances from community taps.

At a cost of about $35 per roller, the hippos are out of reach for the rural South Africans who need them most. Imvubu has tried to convince corporations and nonprofits to sponsor the rollers. So far, about 10,000 have been distributed, mostly in Southern Africa.

The cost of taking them to the places where they are most needed can often be prohibitive. Two-thousand rollers sent to Angola, for example, cost nearly $30,000 to ship. In the meantime, Imvubu is developing portable hippo-roller plants that can be moved more cheaply than the finished product. Some day soon, they hope, the hippo roller will be a common feature in communities around the world, like Luphisi, where water is still a precious and hard-won commodity.