Experience an Ethiopian Clean Water Project in Virtual Reality

“The Source” follows a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl as she balances the need for clean water with her education.

13-year-old Selam, the subject of “The Source” VR experience, with her father, Alem Hailu Behalu, in their village in northern Ethiopia. Photo by Scott Harrison.

In the Western world, clean water is taken as a given. With corporations buying up American communities’ water rights, and Flint, Michigan’s lead-contaminated water supply crisis, perhaps it shouldn’t be. But in parts of the African continent, and elsewhere around the world, clean water is an everyday crisis, as it is in a northern Ethiopian community profiled in the new virtual reality experience “The Source,” viewable on the Vrse app. Produced by Vrse.works, which specializes in collaborative spherical filmmaking experiences, “The Source” is a short VR video that follows a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl named Selam as she attempts to balance the daily fetching of clean water with her education.

And Selam is just one of many millions in a similar situation. According to charity: water, a clean-water nonprofit (which coproduced the film), there are 663 million people on the planet without simple access to clean water. Directed by Vrse’s Imraan Ismail, and premiering on World Water Day, “The Source” explores what it’s like when clean water is brought to a community that hadn’t previously benefitted from it. In Selam's community, charity: water dug a closed well down into the deep-lying, clean groundwater. (Selam’s community is just one of charity: water’s 19,819 water projects in 24 countries, which bring clean water to 6.1 million people.)

Image from “The Source” of 13-year-old Selam gathering water at the well.

“This story is representative of the work taking place in Ethiopia on a daily basis,” Melissa Burmester, director of production at charity: water, tells GOOD. “And Selam and her family were willing to put up with our cameras for a week. It was an honor to be able to share their story.”

Burmester notes that “when we shot this, there simply wasn’t a manual to follow. In terms of shooting logistics—heat, dust, and water were challenging variables to overcome.”

Ismail, the film’s director, tells GOOD that the project was based on an insight arrived at by Vrse.works and charity: water. When people are able to visit Ethiopia and actually see the families there facing the challenges caused by a poor water supply, they are more likely to engage, to help, and to donate.

“Of course, this is not possible for most people,” Ismail says. “So a VR/360 trip to Ethiopia became the way to help more people bridge that gap.”

13-year-old Selam and her father, Alem Hailu Behalu, watching the “The Source” VR experience in their home in northern Ethiopia. Photo by Scott Harrison.

“As a storyteller, it was a heavy responsibility to try to convey their truth to the world,” he explains. “We all have a story, we all have an intrinsic value, and it felt very important to show that this family in the dusty mountains of Ethiopia, on the other side of the world, and out of thought and mind, lives a life just as important as ours, and just as relatable as ours, but with far greater challenges.”

The truth for Selam, as in many developing countries, is that the burden of collecting water is often the job of women and children. When a community gets water, women and girls get their lives back. They spend more time in school, with their families, and can even launch their own businesses.

“For years we’ve been trying to get people as close to the work on the ground as possible, short of bringing them there, and VR does exactly that,” Burmester says. “For nine minutes we can transport supporters to Ethiopia, where they get to see what Selam’s life was like before and after her community received clean water.”

“There are hundreds of villages still waiting for clean water,” she adds. “We hope that Selam’s story will inspire others to take action and help fund clean water projects.”


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