By Dan Haseltine and Jenny Eaton Dyer, Ph.D.
I stopped to wipe the sweat from my eyes when I noticed the giggling. I’d been hunched over, deep in concentration, replacing bolts in a metal form that would soon be filled with concrete.
I had chosen this “low-impact” job because I had nearly fainted while mixing cement in the African heat. I was making biosand filters, which are not easy to make, especially for an out-of-shape musician from the U.S. I smiled at my workmates, African women who show up at this makeshift factory every day to do this work. Among them is Mary, who has been smiling and laughing all morning. I asked her why does this work, and she tells me her story. She lives in a village about 5 miles from the factory where the only source of water is a nearby river. Like many rivers in that area it looks more like a runoff ditch with trash floating on it, and dog and goat tracks imprinted on the muddy banks. The animals drink and bathe in that water. It is not the kind of water humans should use for drinking, cooking, or cleaning. It is the only water she and her fellow neighbors had, so they endured the results of ingesting such vile liquid. Mary talks about the dehydration, skin rashes, and bacterial infections she would contract. She then described the worms that plagued the kids in her village, acquired from drinking water teeming with insect larva.
Mary explained that she had signed up to be trained in hygiene and clean water practices by a Blood:Water partner organization, and upon completion, she was given a biosand filter for her home. Mary was giddy as she described the miracle of primitive engineering and how, when she poured the water from the dank river through the filter of varying sized rocks, pebbles, and sand, clean water came out. She said that it did not take long for her skin rashes to go away. She had more focus, eventually her stomach problems disappeared. She said that she felt “powerful.” She pointed at me and asked if I was tired. I didn’t have to answer her. My shirt was drenched with sweat and my breathing was labored. She said that she felt like me until she had the gift of clean water. She said she wants everyone in her village to have that gift of power and health. So she and the other giggling women show up every day to mix cement and build filters, and occasionally, they are entertained by silly white guys attempting to help out.
The filters they build are an African solution to an African problem. Just like the drilling of a well or the building of a tank to collect rain water, Africans have found ways to solve the problem of water that fits their communities. We celebrate the ingenuity and tenacity that it takes to overcome some of the most unforgiving climates, geographic obstacles, society-eroding diseases, and scarcities of resources, and that make having something as foundational as clean water possible. This is why Blood:Water exists. We want people like Mary to live full, healthy lives. There are so many stories worth hearing. The water crisis is overwhelming, and it would seem to be a problem without a solution apart from Mary and the thousands who wake up every day in their own villages and make a difference. So before we get into the big numbers, and give you the statistics, first picture Mary and trust that one person’s story matters. Mary has built hundreds of filters, serving hundreds of families for generations. I wish you could hear her giggle.
Today, more than 783 million people around the world lack access to clean water, and nearly 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation. Because dirty water contributes to diarrheal diseases, a leading cause of death among children under the age of five, this translates to more than 700,000 preventable, treatable deaths among children every year. Without clean water to drink, cook and clean, disease and death abound.
Investing in clean water for vulnerable populations around the world is not only a moral, compassionate act, it also contributes to national security and economic stability. For instance, the roots of many national and international conflicts—including both the Darfur and Syrian conflicts—over the past decade have begun with water shortages and droughts. Currently, more than 85 percent of the world’s population lives on the driest half of the planet. Water will be one of the world’s most pressing problems over the next century and will contribute to instability within and between nations. Investing in initiatives to enhance water capacity for low income countries is a contribution to diplomacy. Also, for every $1 invested in safe drinking water and sanitation, an estimated $8 is saved in work time, productivity, and health care costs. This allows developing nations to move toward financial sustainability, empowering women with more time to contribute to household incomes through jobs, rather than finding clean water or caring for sick children.
In 2014, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress and was signed into law to help the U.S. deliver sustainable clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for the world’s poor. This act will help address the needs of over one-third of the world’s population who lack access to basic sanitation or clean water, making WASH efforts a foreign policy priority.
Yet just this month, President Trump’s budget request for FY18 recommended a draconian cut of funding for the International Affairs account, which addresses global health and development issues, by about 28 percent. As a reminder, U.S. development assistance programs represent less than 1 percent of the entire U.S. budget. Among the various programs in the International Affairs Account, USAID’s Development Assistance account appears to be one of the hardest hit. This account provides funding for agriculture and nutrition, education, economic development and governance programs, among other areas. And this includes funding for the Water for the World program.
Your philanthropy for one community and your advocacy for the lives of millions are both needed as critical interventions.
To donate and learn more, go to bloodwater.org.
To advocate, go to Senate.gov or House.gov, type in your zip code, and reach out to your member of Congress requesting they fully fund poverty-focused development assistance, including the Water for the World Act. Let them know this is a moral, security, and economic issue that you support.
Your voice has the power to provide access to clean water and save the lives of millions.
In a quiet moment with friends among children, Jesus notes, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose.” While it is assumed Jesus was insinuating a reward in the afterlife, perhaps he meant here on earth as well.
We stand to lose our moral compass: “For what does it profit someone to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” We stand to weaken our national security strategy and foreign policy efforts. And we stand to pay much higher costs in the future due to a lack of economic prevention strategy. We lose with these severe cuts. Yet all we have to do is take a stand for a cup of cold water for those in developing nations.
Dan Haseltine is the lead singer of the band Jars of Clay and a co-founder of Blood:Water, which aims to provide clean drinking water and HIV/AIDS treatment to people in underdeveloped parts of the world.
Jenny Eaton Dyer is the executive director for Hope Through Healing Hands which promotes improved quality of life for citizens and communities around the world using health as a currency for peace.