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FREETOWN (Reuters) - Marie Bangura's six children are too busy selling water to go to school.
Aged 10 to 19, they spend what should be their school days wandering the 12,000-strong Mabella slum in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, selling tiny plastic bags of water from bowls perched on their heads for 100 leones (4 U.S. cents) apiece.
"The people are not happy to pay, they abuse you and curse you," said Bangura, 42. "Sometimes they try to drive us away because they are so angered."
Dirty water kills about 4,000 children a day around the world, the U.N. World Health Organization says. More than 1 billion people a year have no access to clean water.
Here in Sierra Leone, which ranks bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index and where three out of four people live on the equivalent of less than $2 a day, more than a quarter of children die before their fifth birthday, often through avoidable water-related illnesses such as diarrhea.
Less than half the population has access to an improved water source, according to United Nations Human Development Reports from 2005 and 2006.
Mabella was once a busy natural harbor exporting charcoal to fuel French trains. Today, rusting corrugated iron and old emergency aid sheeting make do for roofs, held down with stones or tied with lengths of waste plastic.
Pigs wallow in filthy rivers, the stench of sewage hangs in the air and sandbags are at the ready in case of flooding.
Mabella has just one working drinking water pipe, which often does not work.
"We strain for water," said Isata Sesay, 20, holding her third bucket of water fetched that day. Her 7-month-old baby, whom she feeds on breast milk mixed with water, is sick. Her husband, like many people here, is unemployed.
"Some days it's midnight before we even get any water because the pump is not open. This place is so dirty, and we have no food. Getting water is not easy -- I don't want to buy it but what else can I do?" she said.
Many people defecate in the open due to a lack of sanitation, and the land people live on has been reclaimed from the sea using rubbish from the city, so wells are impractical.
At a standpipe erected over a natural spring, residents compete to get water for washing: they must pay for it if they take it away, even though it is not suitable for drinking.
Men, women and children tussle for the precious liquid, washing themselves and their clothes, collecting buckets and deliberately spilling the loads of anyone accused of pushing in.
Throughout the mud-churned pathways, small children ferry water in whatever vessels they can carry -- tiny plastic kettles, small bowls slopping over their sides, tilting buckets filled to the brim and heaved onto heads by stronger friends.
Some families here spend as much as 6,000 Leones ($2.44) a day on water, and don't appreciate the likes of Bangura and her troupe of children making a profit.
"We are feeling bad about it, but we too suffer," said Bangura.
It is far from easy money. By night she traipses out of the slum to fill five-gallon yellow plastic jerry cans with water, hoists them onto her head to return home. Between midnight and 6 am she fills bags for her children to sell.
On a good day the whole family will make 3,000 Leones ($1.20) and still do without a midday meal.
Freetown's only reservoir at Guma Valley struggles to supply the city's million-plus people.
The city's population exploded during the country's 1991-2002 civil war, when people rushed to the capital to seek refuge from rebels infamous for slicing off people's limbs with machetes.
"The network is in a poor state, with lots of leaks everywhere, so they try to conserve water by shutting off parts of it and rationing the water. Some areas only get water at night," said Alex Grumbley, engineering coordinator with Irish non-governmental organization GOAL, which runs pilot projects to promote hygiene.
The state water company does not make enough money to maintain its network, he said.
President Ernest Bai Koroma, elected last year on a promise to create jobs and improve standards of living, has also launched a health policy to promote child and maternal welfare.
A new 32 million pound ($64.96 million) five-year project funded by the British government aims to improve water and sanitation throughout Sierra Leone.
GOAL's pilot project in Freetown's poor east end encourages people to build latrines, wash their hands and chlorinate wells. Aid workers tell people that defecating in the open can pollute drinking supplies as feces are trodden near ground water.
Until all that takes effect, young children ply the squalid streets ferrying and selling water, while related illnesses such as cholera, malaria and diarrhea continue to take hold.
"I have to get 2,000 Leones a ($0.82) day to give to my mother," says 10-year-old water seller Sorie Sesay, one of 12 siblings, balancing a bowl filled with water sacks on his head. "I want food and at times I don't go to school."
Bangura is philosophical about the future.
"If we get water here we won't be able to sell it anymore," she said. "But I don't mind: we need better water -- and I can always go find another market."
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