How Do We Ensure Clean Drinking Water for All?


Washington, D.C. -- The rapture of fresh water dances across the faces of the world's children, whether they appeared in the photographs Gil Garcetti shot along the sand-dusted roads of a morning in Burkino Faso or in the let-it-rock-the-house video from Charity Water.

Among the viewers of the full house that packed the auditorium at the National Geographic headquarters on March 12, was a cohort of representatives from organizations that implement clean water projects in varying regions of the world. They indeed comprised the choir that over 15 speakers were singing to as the WASH-in-Schools Initiative celebrated its U.S. launch. They already understood what Earth Echo International co-founder Alexandra Cousteau meant when she said the issues around access to clean water will be "the defining crisis of this century." And, regrettably, they also were the choir that bore witness to the undiluted truth of Carol Bellamy's succinct summation of the day's topic: "We're talking about death."

Bellamy, President and CEO of World Learning, has been an investment banker, UNICEF"s executive director and a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s. It was in that latter capacity where the stupefying statistic of 1.8 million children dying each year from diarrheal disease related to unclean water washed over her soul. "The first time I encountered death was that little child who died from dehydration," Bellamy recalled, "that child who died in my arms." Bellamy stressed that access to water has to be accompanied by sanitation and hygiene, and starkly described how the lack of sanitation that now affects 2.6 billion people, many of them children, severely curtails education for young girls in developing counties.

Once girls reach the age of menstruation in many cultures, their families will not let them go to school unless there are adequate -- and separate - facilities where they can practice good hygiene, Bellamy explained. So, while water access has improved by degrees worldwide, access to sanitation on the global scale is still wanting.

Another key driver in the marginalization of young girls in education is the almost universal feminization of the task of hauling water. Garcetti's photographs appear in the book "Water is Key: A Better Future for Africa," as part of a fundraising initiative by the Pacific Institute. He spoke of taking pictures as the young girls and women of Burkino Faso went about their daily chores, carrying on their heads containers of water that often weighed between 30 and 40 lbs. They walked two or three miles per trip, often several times a day, in order to have the water necessary for basic human needs. During his assignment, never, Garcetti said, did he see a male involved in this arduous spine-bending but life-giving task, "not one man, not one boy." It was a gender depiction reiterated throughout the morning program by speakers involved in Asia and South and Central America.

The physical task of hauling water is daunting, as some students at Highview Middle School in New Brighton, Minn., discovered as they lugged pails of water around a track. Their efforts were a part of the many fundraising activities for H20 For Life School to School. The non-profit began as an attempt to collect $7,000 for water projects for a school in Kenya. H2O For Life's president and founder, Patty Hall, said, "I had no intentions of doing more than this one project." The students, however, became enthralled with the mission as they began to understand the dire need and that their efforts had direct benefits. They exceeded their monetary goal, raising $13,000. The money paid for well drilling and an earthen dam to retain water closer to the village.

Highview students urged for the project to continue, thus, H2O For Life School to School was founded. The students are highly motivated and have produced a video describing their work. Val Johnson, one of the trustees, said the program is now in 16 schools in the United States. "We think schools can make a huge difference in the water crisis," Johnson said, the precise sentiment that exemplifies the strategy of the WASH-in-Schools Initiative -- harnessing the unbounded energy of America's youth to address a solvable problem of which they may not be aware. Other speakers said working through schools here and abroad yields multiplier effects that ripple through the society, including the knowledge of sanitation and hygiene children bring back to their families. Johnson added that, "as a service learning project," H2O For Life is a teacher's dream that has given Highview's students "opportunities to be great caring citizens."

There is room in WASH-in Schools for participation from corporations, foundations, NGOs, and multilateral finance organizations. Ruben Avendano, Senior Infrastructure Specialist, Water and Sanitation Division, Inter American Development Bank, said the newly elected government of Guatemala is planning to address water needs in over 40 of its poorest municipalities. This will be accomplished through a new IDB Water and Sanitation Initiative that arranges the financial and technical assistance and fosters local partnerships.

Guatemala's intentions dovetail into the critique of Dr. William Hare, Director, Water Resources Research Institute, University of the District of Columbia. He found the actions of the attending individuals and organizations impressive, but as a keen observer of Africa, said that the long term solutions to Africa's water needs have to be generated internally through political will, enlightened governmental policies and regulations, and pressure of the peoples of Africa on their respective leaders. To move the water imperative to the top of a country's agenda and to educate their citizens, "what regulations, what policies will those governments put in place?" Hare asked. A Liberian by birth, Hare said external project initiatives often amount to only a "short-term fix."

Dr. Peter Gleick, President and Co-founder of the Pacific Institute, said the WASH-In-Schools Initiative provides a way for people to become involved in attacking the world's water crisis without being overwhelmed by the problem's magnitude. "There is no single [silver] bullet" Gleick said, but the WASH-In-Schools decision to target schools is an important "piece of the issue;" a practical way to foster improvements in water access that could benefit hundreds of millions children in that sometimes magical place where they spend most of their waking hours.

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