The expansive, bright green countryside dotted with farmhouses and lush crops planted in neat rows which surrounds the Zambian capital certainly don’t scream “We have a water problem” to the casual visitor.
But even in this lush nation, water scarcity and lack of hygiene affect people’s daily lives. USAID in 2010 estimated that 15 percent of the deaths of children under the age of 5 were caused by diarrhea from poor sanitary conditions and water-related illness. The agency also estimated that fewer than half of Zambians living in rural locations had access to the water they needed for daily tasks.
And by African water standards, Zambia’s water problems are a walk in the park. Just a bit farther north in Africa, in the Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert, water is so scarce that discussions about how to use it often lead to political conflicts and, sometimes, violence. Across most of the region — in Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria’s Niger Delta area, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia — the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 identified tension or outright violence over the use of water-rich land or water itself. And a 2008 study found that, in some countries, water use is one-fifth to one-half less efficient than it could be, because of internal political corruption.
Water access is only part of the problem. The water trifecta — clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) — is so important that the United Nations made doubling global access part of a Millennium Development Goal, to be met by 2015. That goal includes providing access to clean drinking water, sanitary toilet facilities, and hygiene education, all of which are crucial to eradicating waterborne diseases, keeping children alive, ensuring that children — especially girls — are educated, and giving women safer living conditions.
The Real Good of Clean Water
So what good is clean water, anyway?
Children lose 272 million school days each year because of diseases related to unsafe water and poor hygiene; they lose 200 million years of school days because of worm-related illnesses, which can be held at bay with good sanitation practices.
Girls are more likely than boys to miss school for water-related reasons, either because they need to collect water for their families or because, once they hit puberty, schools lack toilet facilities to let girls manage their menstrual cycles. With greater WASH access, girls’ school attendance and literacy rates go up.
Tropical diseases like guinea worm, trachoma, and schistosomiasis, which infect millions of people annually, are found most often in places with unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation and hygiene. Providing access to clean water, sanitary toilets and good hygiene practices reduces these diseases substantially.
Ninety percent of the food- and wood-gathering work in African families is done by women, who spend 40 billion hours per year — the equivalent of the entire French workforce’s annual labor — collecting water. Access to water close to the home reduces women’s workloads and lets them pursue jobs or school.
#The Solution to the Water Problem
The solution to the “water problem” is, of course, complicated, particularly in regions where politics and environmental factors intensify the lack. But there are also some simple solutions — solutions you could be part of today.
In Zambia and other countries, World Vision is one of several organizations working to provide water access, sanitation, and hygiene instruction to rural and urban communities, with good results. In Ghana, for instance, World Vision’s wells work remarkably well after 20 years of use; 80 percent of them are still operational, according to a new report. That’s significantly higher than the 30–50 percent of wells typically still operational years after their installation, and World Vision says the sustainability is partly due to the community involvement they emphasize.
World Vision’s goal is to provide water for all in the communities where the organization works — that’s 10 liters of clean water per person, per day, a maximum 30-minute walk from each household. This access, along with the sanitation and hygiene training provided, lead to better educated children; stronger crops; fewer deaths from water-related diseases; and more empowered women.
The U.N. met the goal of doubling access to water, but the world is behind in ensuring healthy water access: 2.5 billion people and almost 1 billion children still lack access to basic sanitation, and more than 2 million tons of human waste are released in waterways in developing countries on a daily basis, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
To put that another way: More people own a cell phone than a toilet, according to Water.org.
And even though the U.N. met the water goal, more than 780 million people around the world still cannot access it.
Taking a Moment
So, on World Water Day, take a moment to meditate on the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, lowly, precious and pure.”
As you do so, think about taking a moment to make this “lowly, precious, and pure” gift available to others: donate to World Vision, charity: water, or another organization working to provide clean and healthy water to the world. Spread the love of Sister Water a little further around the world.