Seeing the Whole Picture: Preventable Disease

it takes more than just clean water to eliminate water-related illnesses
Water-borne illnesses kill millions every year—and are so often preventable. Jonathan Wiles og Living Water Intl. talks about the far-reaching dangers of unclean water, why women are most affected and the importance of empowering and training locals.

“The vast majority of diarrheal diseases in the world, which is the second largest killer of children under the age of 5, is inadequate safe water and sanitation. Globally, the U.N. estimates 2.2 million people die every year because they lack access to safe water and sanitation, and 90 percent of those are children under the age of 5. At any point in time, half the population of the developing world is suffering from a water-related illness. At least 10 percent of people in the developing world have chronic parasites in their body through drinking bad water, and that obviously drains your system and makes your body unable to process nutrients. It affects the ability of children to pay attention in school. There’s just all sorts of secondary effects. Another way to look at it is that right now, half the hospital beds in the world are filled by people suffering from water-related diseases. It’s mind-numbing.”

Clean water doesn’t replace medicine, but it’s a critical first step

“Another misconception is that the biggest medical problems in the world are related to lack of medicine. Worldwide access to safe drinking water would save more lives on a daily basis than an infinite number of vaccines. Those things are important, but I think people lose sight of the scale of some of these problems that are relatively easy to solve.”

Children fall prey to water-borne illness the most, but it doesn’t discriminate

“In terms of illnesses, it’s pretty much an equal opportunity. In terms of death, it’s overwhelmingly a problem with smaller children, just because their immune systems aren’t well developed and they’re more vulnerable. The money people end up having to spend to treat the diseases is amazing, and people who have very limited incomes end up having to go to the clinic and spend money to treat their cholera. If they just had something as simple as clean water, they wouldn’t have to spend money to treat their cholera, and they could spend it on food or education for their kids. Diseases take men and women away from productive work and the ability to earn money for their family; it takes mothers away from their families. It’s pretty far-reaching.”

Women are negatively affected by unclean water in many different ways

“A lack of access to safe water affects women far more than other groups. Women are the ones who have to carry water for long distances when they don’t have it close to home. They end up being the primary caretakers when family members get sick. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 40 billion hours of labor get spent carrying water long distances, and the majority of the primary water-carriers in Africa are women.”

Giving people clean water isn’t enough—it takes training to help

“The other side of the equation is that if you bring clean water to somebody, but they don’t really know how to use it to improve their health, then it’s got a limited impact. You’re not able to see significant changes in community health without an understanding of things like hand washing, safe transportation and storage, good sanitation practices, having latrines in homes [and even] proper food storage. We have different approaches that we use in different communities. A pretty widespread problem in the developing world is that people aren’t aware of the fact that open defecation—not using latrines or toilets—is leading to disease and infection. You can’t really address that problem without having clean water present, so you can’t really look at one without the other. Either one of those not being taken care of can really compromise your ability to face the issue.”

Supply and demand relates to water in a community, too

“We’re realizing a lot of it has to do with community engagement. Our approach has to be demand-driven—people have to want it. One of the things we do early on in a community is to try and understand what level of demand is already present, and then to help the community gain a demand for it by understanding their need. Another piece is really just taking an asset-based approach by mobilizing the assets that are already in the communities, including financial assets. Even the poorest communities have something they can contribute, and eventually are going to have to contribute in order to have a sustainable model. You can’t always have the outside players playing that role, because then it’s just a cycle of dependency. The last point would just be the long-term view and understanding what the real costs and what real capacity is needed to sustain over time.”

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